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