Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Do Not Adjust Your Television - La Huelga En Madrid

I've written some very harsh words about Telemadrid in the past, so now it's time to put things right. Their programming today has been outstanding, their coverage of today's general strike in Spain is perhaps the best thing they've ever done. I'm sure that their dwindling but ever so loyal audience has loved every minute of it. Sadly, I can only share a small snippet of their coverage with you.

The inevitable numbers war over participation in the strike has already begun. What I can say, from my handy vantage point in the centre of Madrid, is that this has been far from a normal working day in the Spanish capital. Apart from the almost incessant noise of police helicopters this morning it's been amazingly quiet. I live with the noise of traffic normally.

I went out early this morning during the rush hour to see what was happening. I headed for Cibeles where the planned 'bicicletada' was assembling. There weren't many of them when I passed by, and it seems that later when there was more they were given a seriously hard time by the police considering it was just a bunch of people wanting to ride their bikes around holding some placards. Just up the road there was a noisy picket outside of the Banco de España.

There was traffic, but much less than on a normal day. I headed to the Puerta del Sol, expecting to see something going on. It was almost deserted apart from another heavy police presence and a few lonely TV journalists who must have ended up interviewing each other. Turning up Preciados I came across even more police, all there it seems to protect the Corte Inglés!

Transport seems to have worked in the capital, despite the provocative attempt by Esperanza Aguirre to cause a confrontation over the minimum services required. Aguirre could easily have had an agreement with the unions along the same lines they agreed with the national government. But that would have affected her image as a self-appointed union buster so she looked for a fight as part of the PP's attempt to pretend the strike is against them. It doesn't seem to have worked.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Crowdmap - Huelga General 29S/General Strike

A few weeks ago, when I was doing some investigation on web mapping, I came across something called Ushahidi. This is an open source platform that was originally set up to map and monitor violence reports in Kenya. From this it has evolved into a crisis mapping platform that can also be used for any other purpose where there might be a need to combine different sources of information concerning current events. To make things a bit easier to use, the people behind Ushahidi have recently launched a simpler version called Crowdmap and so I decided that Wednesday's general strike would be a good opportunity to test how the technology works.

With Crowdmap you can set up your own site for the event you want to map, and this morning I set up a specific site for the general strike - you can find it here. I've already added some information mostly for Barcelona and Madrid, but this is a project where anyone can participate. So, because one is definitely not a crowd, I invite anyone else who is interested to join in by supplying information about the strike. The examples I've already added include minimum services, flights that are cancelled, political reactions, groups who have decided to join the strike etc. The categories of information are configurable and still being developed. Reports can be emailed to me, submitted directly via the site (I haven't tested that yet) or I just pick them up from Twitter hashtags. Apart from joining in, feel free to publicise the crowdmap page to anyone who you think might be interested.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dirty Old Town

The wastepaper bins and recycling containers are filled to overflowing. Discarded furniture lies broken on the streets. There have been a significant number of complaints recently about the cleanliness of the centre of Madrid. The cutbacks in cleaning services provoked by the financial problems of the city's administration are starting to show, and things look set to get worse.

Still, there is always someone to distract attention from the real cause of the problem. Cleaning services in Madrid come under the expert control of Ana Botella, whose husband is currently busy defending the Spanish borders against the Moroccan threat. Botella, renowned for her political sensitivity, last week put the blame for the cleaning problems on the homeless people who bed down on the streets of the centre. We're still only one Gallardón away from having her in charge of the city.

There is, however, a more fundamental cause. It turns out that the companies responsible for the cleaning services have not been paid by the administration since September last year. The bill due is now approaching €300 million, and the companies concerned are threatening to stop paying their workers. The result of that will almost certainly be a strike, and an attempt by the PP to blame the unions for the uncollected rubbish that will then pile up.

The odd thing is that rubbish collection in Madrid is supposed to be financed by a specific tax levied for that purpose, and which of course is still being collected. So if that money is not being used to pay the contractors for keeping the city clean, then where has it gone? It would be wrong to think that Madrid is unable to pay for anything. The Calle Serrano, Madrid's most pijo shopping street, has recently been reformed and money was found for an expensive inauguration yesterday. With elections on the horizon we can expect similar events in the next few months. The homeless, of course, will not be invited.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Ghasa To Tatopani

We would get few views more impressive on the Annapurna Circuit than that which we had at first light just a short distance back up the road from our hotel in Ghasa. The Dhaulagiri, one of the 8000+ metre peaks and the seventh highest mountain in the world, bright and clear in the early morning.

After breakfast we made our way down through the village, which stretches some way down the narrow valley. Just past Ghasa we crossed over the river to avoid walking on the main road. The path was shady, passing through some tiny villages and areas of lush vegetation.

Over on the other side of the river gorge we could see just how precarious the "main" road is for the traffic that passes along it. Despite occasionally having to rejoin this road we were able to avoid it for much of the day by walking on the opposite side of the river.

By now I was mostly used to the bridges that we had to cross, especially as most of them were in very good condition. There are always exceptions, although I suppose we should be pleased that had to cross this one after it had been repaired rather than before. Over on the other side local villagers were working on the path too.

Soon we found that we were back in rice country again, as water had become more abundant and the altitude was lower. This was not the only change, we had also left behind the Tibetan and Buddhist influence, the people down here were mostly Hindus. We stopped in the village of Dana for lunch, surrounded by citrus trees and fields of rice, millet, maize and beans.

Back on the road the main obstacle we had to deal with was a buffalo who had decided the puddle in the middle of the road was a good, cool resting place. That and the occasional flock of sheep and goats being driven down the valley towards the towns. It was another day of relatively gentle walking and we followed the valley down to Tatopani.

Our guide had been telling us for a couple of days about the famous hot springs of Tatopani, and we had perhaps a bit of a romantic idea about the long, relaxing soak we were going to enjoy there. That idea soon disappeared in my case when I saw the unimpressive looking pair of concrete pools down near the river in Tatopani. I opted instead to sit in the shade with a beer and a book, although Silvia went into the water; only kept tolerably cool by the hosepipe pumping cold water into it.

You have to say the springs have all facilities. Apart from the bar there is a changing room.

And a massage room too!

Tatopani is an attractive village and a bit more luxurious than what we had been experiencing higher up the valley. The temperature at night was just warm enough for us to have dinner outside and the food was good. As it was getting dark we got another impressive view to finish the day. I think this is part of the Nilgiri range.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Friday, September 24, 2010


It seems that Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy was so impressed by the way in which Zapatero campaigned against him in past elections as "ZP" that he seriously considered using the same kind of political marketing ploy. Sadly, apart from being advised against the idea on the grounds of lacking originality, it seems that MR-12 has already been used for other purposes. The MR-12 was the name given to a Soviet rocket and some of the many elderly PP voters can still be a bit funny about any connection with the Soviet Union. Especially those that served in the División Azul. Other campaigning slogans that seem to have been rejected include the following:

"I need your vote. Or maybe I don't. Let me think about it and I'll get back to you."

"You would vote for me if you knew who my successor as PP leader would be!"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Most People Have Left The Floor, But Zapatero's Still Dancing

The agreement between the Spanish government and the Basque nationalist PNV to support the 2011 budget means that Zapatero's administration now has a fairly strong chance of lasting its full term. By this time next year there will only be 6 months of the parliament left anyway, and a failure to pass the budget is the one thing that most threatened the stability of the government. However, we won't be hearing much anymore about the variable geometry which Zapatero has used to keep a minority government going. The parties to the left of the PSOE have been estranged by the adoption of a right wing economic agenda, and the Catalan nationalists of Convergencia are far more interested in winning the forthcoming Catalan elections than they are in extracting concessions from the national government in return for support. It was more or less the PNV or nothing.

The agreement with the PNV means that the Basque Country will receive additional powers from the national government, most notably the control of employment policy. Despite the predictable howls of protest from the right wing press in Madrid, the deal involves transferring powers that many other autonomous regions already possess, and which are long overdue in the case of the Basque Country. Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy knows all about making such deals, when Aznar's first government needed support Rajoy more or less announced that he would concede whatever was necessary to get the PNV's votes. However, when the boot is on the other foot. Less comfortable with the deal will be the minority Basque administration by the PSOE's Patxi Lopez which relies on the PP's support. The PNV get the credit for extracting concessions and will be strengthened as the opposition to a regional government that is in any case far more popular outside of the Basque Country than in it.

Tomorrow we should know more about what next year's budget means, but we can be fairly sure that it will bring cuts, cuts and more cuts. The talk is of 15% cuts in government departments. Another consequence of the deal being done with the PNV is that all the talk from prominent government members of the wealthy also paying their part of getting the country out of crisis remains just There may be a new income tax band for those declaring annual earnings over €120000, but this leaves untouched much of the barely taxed wealth that was pocketed by a tiny minority during the boom years.

I was reading today about the very real possibility of Ireland being forced back into recession as a result of the slash and burn economic recipes that are being applied across Europe. This, of course, is the country that did everything the markets and our distinguished economic analysts said had to be done by applying very drastic cuts. Now the poster boy of the neoliberal "solution" is being punished by the same markets because of doubts about the capacity of the economy to grow. I can't wait for someone from those responsible to come out and say "nobody warned us this would happen". I was also reading yesterday the comments on the Wall Street Journal's interview with Zapatero and it struck me just how many people evidently desire the continuation of the crisis. They are either sick or making a lot of money a lot of money out of it. Or a combination of the two.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Keep Quiet....Or Your Freedom Might Be In Danger

Things seemed to have gone very quiet concerning the judicial persecution of Baltasar Garzón by the Spanish Supreme Court. It was only to be expected that, following the frenzied activity provoked by his bid to leave Spain and work in the International Criminal Court, that the course of justice would resume the more leisurely pace normally expected of it. However, the end of summer has produced some new developments in two of the three cases brought against the exiled judge.

First of all came the rejection of Garzon's appeal against the conduct of the case against him concerning Franco's victims. Oddly enough, the appeal was heard by exactly the same panel of judges who intend to hear the main case when it comes to court. This highights an interesting factor in the whole situation, the persecution of Garzón is not necessarily being led by the Supreme Court as a whole, it is instead the action of a handful of judges who are seemingly determined to keep the case to themselves. This odd situation meant that the judges could not enter into the arguments presented by Garzón's lawyer for fear of jeopardising their right to hear the main case. So the appeal was dismissed without even being properly considered.

Another strange situation has surfaced in another of the cases against Garzón. This case is the one concerning the allegation that he favoured the Banco de Santander in a case after being sponsored by the same bank during his sabbatical period in New York. The judge investigating this case has clearly not found the evidence he is looking for to sustain the accusation. Faced with the somewhat humiliating prospect of having to drop the case, he has instead opted to get the Guardia Civil to trawl through all of Garzon's financial history in the hope that they come up with something. Its a bit of a desperate measure and very obviously a fishing exercise to try and find anything to bolster a faltering accusation. Garzón undoubtedly earns plenty of money and having his financial history opened to inspection in this way will be embarrassing, regardless of whether it brings up anything relevant to the case against him.

A couple of senior figures in the Supreme Court have recently issued renewed calls for criticism of the court's actions to stop. One senior judge even claimed that such criticism threatens democracy. The difficult relationship that always seems to exist between judges and freedom of expression continues to show itself. Perhaps it has something to do with their tradition? There could be a reasonable case, especially in these times when people who do the job they are supposed to do are having their salaries slashed, for deducting the salary of the judges for all the time they spend on settling scores with their enemies. But then in the situation concerning Garzón that might carry the risk of leaving the señorias without enough money to live on.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Goal For The Millennium Is Staying Alive

Although Spanish prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is formally in the US for the UN meeting on the millennium development goals, it seems he has some other business there too. Apart from having a meeting with the King of Morocco, Zapatero had what was described in El País today as a frugal breakfast with a group of important financiers. Unconfirmed rumours reaching South of Watford have suggested that the star dish in the breakfast consisted of slices of Spain's successful state pension scheme drizzled with a good olive oil and topped with grated mileurista. The pending pension "reform" of course is the missing piece in the package to try and keep the markets off Spain's back, even though the country's pensions have absolutely nothing to do with what is alleged to be the root of the current crisis; the budget deficit. On the contrary, Spanish state pensions currently boast a healthy surplus.

The same cannot be said for private pension schemes in Spain, which so many of these financiers woud love to see as our only option available for retirement. After all, funds are needed badly these days to keep the casino running. Anyone thinking of investing their savings in a private pension here might be well advised to get hold of a copy of the report on their performance cited in this article from Público. The full report can be downloaded here. It seems that savers would have been better off in recent years investing their funds in, oh yes, treasury bonds! Which is where a lot of these funds end up investing anyway. As with the great private pension scam in the UK, a large part of any earnings that your pension fund gains soon disappear in commissions. So the solution for the industry is to slash public provision or spend public money to the point where the private pension becomes more attractive. As for the millennium development goals, I don't think anybody ever promised that they would be met in THIS millennium did they? After all, this stuff about clean drinking water, low infant mortality and basic education for all just doesn't seem to fit with the zeitgeist of the times we live in.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Aguirre The Great Liberator

A few months ago, just as Zapatero was beginning his turnaround on economic policy, many in the Partido Popular were howling at the Spanish trade unions because they were not taking action against the government. Now, when the same unions have organised a general strike for September 29th over the government's labour market reform, the PP and their media friends have turned on the unions because they are taking action. Nothing too surprising I suppose, that the PP should be opposed to strikes is something you can almost take for granted.

First to sieze the moment has been the ever vigilant Esperanza Aguirre, usually far quicker off the mark than the national party; especially as Mariano Rajoy now has such a colossal mountain of issues that he is busily thinking about. He'll get back to us in a while. Aguirre knows a thing or two about the opportunist, Sarkozy style, politics of distraction. Ineffective, pointless, but headline grabbing measures are the name of the game. So she launched an attack on what are known as the "liberados", union representatives who are able to dedicate themselves to union activities instead of the job they were originally contracted to do. Aguirre has waited for her chance to strike at the unions, for the last few years it has been common for Madrid's regional government to claim that all protests over the creeping privatisation of health and education in the region are just a result of the liberados having too much time on their hands. So she has launched a bid to slash the number of liberados in her administration, even having the cheek to try and present this as an austerity measure. Not unless she's going to sack people it isn't.

Much has been made in the right wing press about the difficulties of knowing how many liberados there are. This is actually not too surprising. The liberados are more or less the equivalent of shop stewards in the UK, but the law in Spain does not establish anything on full time union activity. What happens is that a certain number of working hours can be dedicated to such activities by elected union representatives based on the number of employees they are representing. The existence of liberados comes from these hours being pooled, so that some representatives carry on working full time whilst others take their hours and effectively become full time union representatives in the workplace. Not a situation that is unique to Spain by any means. Whilst the law sets a legal minimum, the number of hours available for union activities in any given workplace can be increased by negotiation. This is what has happened in Madrid where the unions agreed the hours available for their representatives, the administration led by Esperanza Aguirre!

You want real liberados, I'll give you liberados. How about if we start with all those very highly paid posts that Aguirre's administration created for so many who faced the awful prospect of getting a real job when the PP lost power at national level? Safely ensconced in Madrid, they have little else to do except follow the well established Gürtel procedure for handing large amounts of public cash over to friends in the private sector. Every one of them a true economic liberal you understand. Or how about the security force they set up to spy on people in a regional government that has no power to have such a force and where no documentary evidence exists to tell us what those people employed are actually supposed to be doing? If funds are really the problem then I'm sure all the political allies of Aguirre who have received radio and television franchises from her government will have no objection to these being sold off to the highest bidder? That is, after all, the ideology they espouse as they rail against anyone (else) who receives a public subsidy.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Back From Bali

I got back from my trip to Bali over a week ago. However, I had to prepare almost immediately for a work trip to Germany and this combined with the effects of the 24 hour return journey from Indonesia meant that I had little time for thinking about blogging. It was an enjoyable holiday in Bali and Lombok, with Lombok getting our vote as the better destination. I survived the Mount Rinjani experience, a three day trek that counts as one of the toughest walks I have done. It is a special place, when you get to the crater rim and see the view then the effort of the climb seems more worthwhile. Recovery from the trek was helped by the discovery of the tiny island of Gili Meno, one of the most peaceful and relaxing places I have ever been.

Back on Bali we were a bit disappointed by the supposed artistic and cultural capital of Ubud, although it's a much nicer place than the awful Kuta. I can't really understand why anyone would want to spend 20+ hours of travelling to end up spending their holiday in Kuta, although I'm sure many people do just that. If you really need McDonalds, the Hard Rock Cafe and the rest of the chain store crew then why not just go to Madrid? We climbed another volcano on Bali, Mount Ugung, and this was also a fairly tough ascent - not least because the walk up was done during the night. The compensation afterwards was another relaxing stay by the sea in Amed, a string of small villages and beaches along the north coast of Bali. A lot of travellers seem to use Bali just as a landing point before setting off to explore other islands like Flores or Komodo. I suspect that the best time to visit Bali was a couple of decades ago, although it still has its attractions. Lombok is still significantly less developed for tourism.

The food was good and a special mention should be made for Bintang beer. It's very hard to have problems with people in Indonesia, everyone seems so gentle. Even though people have a keen business sense when dealing with tourists, even the act of bargaining never gets unpleasant. I don't think we had any problems with people the whole time we were there. Transport was also extremely easy. With a relatively short time to explore two islands we paid the extra for the fast boat connections between Bali and Lombok. These tickets can include onward transport to your final destination, and also the treks which we paid for included being picked up in one place and dropped off in another destination afterwards. Some of this will get some extra posts, in the meantime there are things happening closer to home to blog about.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Marpha To Ghasa

A gentle start leaving Marpha on another fine day. The route continues to follow the almost flat and broad river valley and above the high walls of the valley we could see something of the surrounding mountains before the clouds began to move in later in the morning. We were walking on the road and there is some traffic, but those who suggest that walkers on this stretch are constantly breathing traffic fumes are exaggerating the situation. A few jeeps, motorbikes, and the occasional small bus came past us.

The first village we came to was Tukuche, which had similar whitewashed houses to Marpha and a few with stylish wooden balconies. The villages in this area are peopled by the Thakalis, and the Tibetan influence is still strong.

Progressing down the valley, we came to the pretty riverside villages of Kobang and Larjung, which lie close to each other. The valley at this point is green and forested and ahead of us lay the Dhaulagiri range.

Then we hit an obstacle. A broad river comes down from Dhaulagiri to meet the valley, in truth the obstacle on the day we passed through was not too daunting but it did involve taking our boots off and wading across. The water was icy cold. In the rainy season it has to be more complicated. Even the buses have to cross this way too.

After this point the valley curves round and the trek starts to go closely beside the Annapurna range again. The wind picked up at this point, as we headed down to the village of Kalopani. This was supposed to be our final destination for the day but in the end we decided just to have lunch there and continue a bit further. As we arrived in Kalopani we managed to see the peak of Annapurna 1 rising above the valley. It reminded me of the glimpses we had of Annapurna 2 on the the first half of the trek, only for the clouds and bad weather to rob us of the opportunity to see more. We were hoping for better luck from now on and at least since we crossed Thorung La the weather had been very good.

From Kalopani the valley narrows and starts to descend more steeply. The river which consisted of multiple streams further back was now unified into a single, fiercer, flow. I felt a thousand times safer walking as we watched a bus negotiate the narrow, bumpy, road that at times was high above the river. Just one lurch to the wrong side and it could be over the edge.

Our destination now was the village of Ghasa, a narrow strip of a village surrounded by green hills and fields of crops and vegetables. A nicer place to stop than Kalopani.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map