Saturday, 23 February 2013

What we did and didn't see

Yesterday morning I was working in a school in Zaragoza, right on the northern fringe of the city, outskirts that weren't even outskirts until a very few years ago. At morning break I went to find a bank, and I thought I could hear a protest march. There was chanting, like the chanting of slogans, but nobody was there. Aside from me, and a couple of empty trams, the streets were deserted.

I expected a march to come round the corner without warning, like the car in Blow-Up, but it never did. From where I was, high up on a hill, I could see down into the city centre, and across to the ludicrous, overblown station with its disused cable-car connection to the park where the Expo took place, and I even wondered whether the sound had carried up the hill from some other part of the city on one of Zaragoza's characteristic winds.

It hadn't. When I got back into the school I could hear gunfire, and after a short time bothering myself as to whether I had imagined two sounds that morning, I realised that both had come from the officer training school just to the north. You drive past it if you come off the motorway at that end of the city: a huge barracks with a man in uniform, on the gate, carrying a sub-machine gun, stood next to what appears to be a small pile of cannonballs. I've never got close enough to see.

You don't have to be a Guerra Civil buff to find you can't go into Zaragoza - not from the north, anyway - without thinking about the army. On 23F, the 23rd of February, you can't avoid it at all, this being the anniversary of the coup of 1981, the failure of which ended the era in which the Army was a powerful and quasi-independent force in Spain, and began the era, not of democracy as such, but of stable, guaranteed democracy. For thirty years since then it has been assumed that there would be, and could be, no more coups.

I remember it. Not well, but I remember it, from television news in Britain at the time, when I was fifteen. Ths man in a funny hat coming into the Spanish parliament and firing a gun: I ever remember knowing the name, Colonel Tejero, and being puzzled as to why somebody who wasn't even a General was apparently in charge. I'm not sure I knew, at the time, that there had been a period of forty years in which Spain had been ruled by a General, though if I didn't know, I was to find out soon enough.

This 23F is the day of the Mareas Ciudadanas, The Tide of Citizens Against The Coup Of The Markets, a series of demonstrations all over Spain against the cuts and for a democracy that has been rendered farcical by the corruption of the political parties and the demands of the financial institutions.

I nearly went, though I have been ten years retired from active political involvement. But every time I see Olli Rehn dictating its own self-destruction to another country I think seriously about taking to the streets again. If Rehn and his friends are going to throw Spain back a generation, as they are surely going to do, and if they are going to render the will of the Spanish people as irrelevant as Colonel Tejero tried to render it, then perhaps they will take me back a generation too, back to what I was in 1981 - angry and idealistic and wondering what could be done about the capitalists.

Of course, el golpe de los mercados is not the same as the coup of Tejero, let alone that of Franco. But the contempt for the population is the same. And there is always the fear that economic collapse will lead to social collapse, and that will lead to a new conflict, a new Franco or Tejero. They were defeated in 1981, and everybody thought they had gone away for ever. But we are travelling backwards so fast in Spain, as they are in Greece and Portugal, that the past is not, for certain, a different country any more.

Even after 23F in 1981, they didn't go away completely. Not straightaway. Just the other day I was in the bar of a hotel above Calatayud, a place we often stay when the journey home, or to the city where we're working, is too long to be managed without an overnight stay. Reading the Heraldo de Aragón, I came across the story of the mock-execution in Abena, which took place in 1984, and which I had not previously heard of. According to El País a week later, on the 6th of June 1984:
Un grupo de militares 'fusiló' al alcalde de un pueblo de Huesca durante unas maniobras.
A group of soliders "shot" the mayor of a Huesca village during manoeuvres. Firing blanks, it turned out, but a bizarre and nasty event all the same. Having gathered the locals in the main square, they accused the mayor and the odd-job man of being collaborators, and "shot" them. Up against a wall, with all the normal ceremony attending a real execution.

Nobody knows why the soldiers did this, and that is not the only mysterious aspect to the event. As the El País story reports, that same evening, the local radio station was robbed and equipment destroyed. The "executed" mayor fell over himself to say that it had all been a practical joke and that he forgave everybody involved. And everybody in the village developed amnesia. According to another piece later that same month:
Ninguno de los habitantes de Abena que ayer se encontraban en el pueblo admitió haber estado en la plaza cuando el pelotón de las COE fusiló a Galindo y a Ara. Todos parecían ser víctimas de una fuerte amnesia que les impedía recordar nada de lo sucedido. Sin embargo, recordaban perfectamente "las barbaridades y mentiras que habéis escrito los periodistas".
"None of the inhabitants of Abena that we came across admitted having been in the plaza" when the shooting took place. "All of them seemed to have been victims of a powerful amnesia preventing them remembering anything at all of what had taken place." However, as the writer snarkily adds, "nevertheless, they recalled perfectly the nonsense and lies that the journalists had written".

Very strange. The piece alludes to some stories in the press that the village had been a hideout for the maquis, Republican guerillas behind Fascist lines, during the Civil War, and the vehement denials of the villagers that this has been so. The very fact of their vehemence says a great deal, as does the comment of a thirty-year-old man, who had been there to help his parents with the harvest (June is not early for the harvest, round these parts) that he had been asked to say nothing to anybody, and that
Aquí la gente, la gente mayor especialmente, tiene mucho respeto, casi temor, a los militares.
"Here, people, expecially older people, have a great deal of respect for the military. Fear, almost."

When I say that this says a great deal, I don't assume that it says they were lying about the maquis. I mean that it demonstrates the effect of civil war, mass executions and two generations of military dictatorship upon the people who lived through it: their keenness to say nothing and to have nothing said about them, to see nothing that they should not have seen, to just want to be left alone. Most importantly, nobody should ever complain. (The absence of a complaint was, the following month, advanced by the lawyer for the soldiers involved as a reason for asking the military court to drop the case. In the end minor punishments were applied. The lieutenant in command was recently promoted to Brigadier-General, which is what prompted Heraldo to recall the 1984 events.)

I've been to Abena. It's in the northeast corner of a remote, hilly and mostly wooded area between Jaca, Ayerbe and Huesca, which one passes through on the spectacular train ride between Huesca and Canfranc, the old station of which is permanently closed and almost permamently due to be restored.

Having taken a the train a couple of years ago, we went thought the area by car last summer, turning off the main road just after the bridge over the Embalse de La Peña, then eastwards, if direction means anything in describing a winding passage through the practically-deserted hills. Then, just before reaching the main Huesca to Sabiñanigo road, turning northwest towards Jaca, and stopping, by coincidence, in Abena, which like so many other villages in the area is on a hill - one we climbed to see if we could see a house, between there and Sabiñanigo, where a friend of ours had been working.

On the map, it's just a couple of miles from the town. But you can't see the town: there's a mountain in the way. On the ground, as opposed to the map, everywhere in the mountains is a long way from everywhere else. Everywhere feels isolated. During decades of military rule, everywhere and everybody feels isolated.

One can understand, from this, why the Pact of Forgetting was not just a matter of political convenience, both for the Right who wanted the protection it gave them, and the Left who wanted the democracy for which the Pact was their side of the bargain. It also allowed many people to persist with the amnesia which they had learned, and which, in many different ways, they felt protected them.

In Abena, at least, the agreement was to forget the fusillado as soon as it had taken place, democratic era or not. In fact, when I read about the story a couple of weeks ago, it didn't even appear on the Wikipedia entry for the village.

Mysteriously, just in the past fortnight, the entry has been revised - maybe by somebody who saw the same newspaper story that I did - and the village's memory has been restored. (It is more accessible than the Heraldo story, which online, at least, was behind the subscriber-only barrier.)

The reason why we learn the art of amnesia is because we don't forget. The reason why we learn the art of seeing nothing is that we see. The only people who do not see are those who do not want to. As I write, there are people on the streets of every Spanish city. People who can see. But the country is run, within and without, by the blind. By the wilfully, the ethically and the culpably blind.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

You'd know what a Draghi it is to see you

I was sick last weekend. Nothing important: just some spluttering and coughing and a day spent mostly in bed, the consequence of travelling too far and working too long hours in the winter cold. Somewhere in the six hundred-plus kilometres between Valdepeñas and Huesca, on the Friday, my immune systems broke down, just as our headlights were to do the Monday after, a little north of Zaragoza. The latter problem was fixed with a screwdriver and a couple of new bulbs. The former, with a little rest and time. If only all recoveries could be so swift.

On the Tuesday, we were in Madrid. So, as it happens, was Mario Draghi, addressing the Congress of Deputies, the Spanish equivalent of the House of Commons. This, you would think, was an important event, and so it was. This, you would think, was important enough to be broadcast to the Spanish people, the electorate. But it was not.

The speech took place in closed session. No microphones were allowed. No cameras were allowed. The president of the European Central Bank came and spoke to the Spanish parliament - the representative, elected body of the people of Spain - and nobody was officially allowed to film it, or record it.

The individual responsible for this outrage - and it was an outrage - was, strictly speaking, Jesús Posada, the President of the Congress of Deputies. Posada, son of the fascist civil governor of, successively, Soria, Burgos and Valencia - and a civil governor of Huelva himself in the days when such an office still existed - has a background in authoritarianism more than sufficient to explain why he thought this a proper way to proceed. However, as it couldn't have happened without the consent of both the Partido Popular leadership and Draghi himself, one needs to look more at contemporary trends in governance, rather than the legacy of Franco, to understand how such a thing could have occurred.

Perhaps this is best done by explaining what Draghi wanted. Draghi, who said he came to listen, an unlikely claim given the circumstances under which he was speaking, was here to demand a timetable from the Spanish government. A plan, a detailed plan, stating what cuts they proposed to make and what tax rises they proposed to implement.
Es importante que haya un plan fiscal a medio plazo, con información detallada con los recortes en de gasto y los potenciales aumentos de impuestos.
Un plan fiscal. Whose plan? To whom is it to be delivered for their consideration? Evidently, not the Spanish people: this is not something on which they are to be consulted. This is for the approval of Mario Draghi and the financial community, on whose behalf he travels to Madrid - and invisible to the Spanish people, although he is in their parliament, insists on being given a specific list of cuts, at their expense, at the earliest convenience of the government which they elected, supposedly to represent them.

I said that the office of civil governor no longer existed. No indeed. These days we have somebody similar, but much more powerful. Every bit as arrogant. And even less accountable.

It is hard to imagine such a thing happening in the House of Commons, but even if it were suggested, you like to think that there would be a scandal. No news programme would lead with anything else for days. Last Tuesday, however, the evening news on TVE, squeezed into half-time in the Valencia-PSG match, led with the resignation of the Pope, a gigantic story in its way but one that was already a day and half old.

They then proceeded to cover protests in the Congress of Deputies (yes, the same one) over repossessions, the suicide of a retired couple in Mallorca when their house was repossessed, the government's attempt to declare bullfights "patrimonio cultural inmaterial" and Rajoy's appearance at a conference organised by The Economist. All these items, before mentioning that just that day, Mr Draghi had come to tea. Oh, and that not everybody was pleased that his visit occurred in bizarre, insulting and undemocratic circumstances.

All of these stories were important in their way - the struggle against evictions is quite likely the biggest movement, and biggest issue, in Spain - but the imposition of draconian measures in parliament, to allow an unelected foreign official to make a secret speech dictating policy to that parliament - you would have thought this was more important than sixth or seventh place in a truncated news bulletin. I mean a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable. Now it's actually happening, you'd have thought it was more important than anything else.

Now TVE news has a reputation, fairly well deserved, for presenting the news in such a way that the PP government are not unhappy with it. They did, after all, following the election of 2011, put their own man in charge to make sure that this was so. But maybe it's also that we're getting used to this. Perhaps the whole idea is to get us used to this.

We have had Papademos and we have had Monti. Prime Ministers have been foisted onto countries without those countries having any opportunity to vote for them - if Prime Ministers, why not economic programmes? Why not insist on them at closed and semi-secret meetings? What Rubicon would that cross that has not been crossed already?

Democracy is a habit, which it has taken some time to learn. It is a habit we are being made to unlearn, now that disastrous and gigantically unpopular economic programmes are being foisted on most of Southern Europe, programmes to which their populations have not consented and against which they have protested in huge numbers. In such conditions, meaningful consultation is impossible.

This is not necessarily something that inconveniences the governments involved. What better excuse for taking unpopular decisions that that you have no choice, than that a bigger boy told you to do it? There are advantages in being a rubber stamp, and other governments, with more experience than Rajoy's in doing what they are told, have found it comfortable to become civil governors where they were previously more than that.

Show me a bully, and I'll show you a bumkisser: show me a bumkisser, and I'll show you a bully. In an article today in the Sunday Independent, Gene Kerrigan, talking of the Irish government - which has never shrunk from taking orders from outside, and never ceased to like it - writes thus:
The Cabinet doesn't take its policies from the Dail and Seanad, after open debate. Quite the reverse. It uses a whipped parliament to rubber stamp policies drawn up with the counsel of unelected "advisers" and outside bodies (such as the ECB, and business interests it "consults").
We have, in Spain, our whipped parliament, with (unlike Ireland) its absolute majority. We have the outside body, whose representative arrived on Tuesday. We have a parliament whose majority is already prepared to act as a doormat - what substantial difference is there between that and a rubber stamp? And as it is, already, a bought-and-paid-for party which possesses that majority, what difference does it make, to a reputation it will never again have, if it behaves like a bought-and-paid-for party for somebody else?

The truth is that although in one sense, in an important sense, Draghi is dictating to Rajoy, they need one another. Draghi needs somebody to present him with the cuts and the timetable that he wants. Rajoy needs somebody to tell Spaniards that, in contrast to everything they can see around them, we are in fact on "un buen camino" and recovery will be with us soon. That is why Rajoy had Draghi over, and why he went to Germany to the week before.

The fix is not yet in. Iniciativa per Catalunya Verde were sufficiently outraged by the restrictions to ignore them, video Draghi and put it on their website.

A small, but not unappreciated act of defiance, among the many acts of defiance that are turning Spain into a permanent demonstration against austerity. Mario Draghi claims that he is listening. Perhaps he does believe in listening - people listen to him all right. But only when they are allowed to.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

We're going to catch a big one

We're going on a bear hunt. You can see us in the photo at the bottom of the poster, performing it last year: we're doing it again, but not until Monday, when I'll be pursued by a bear three times first thing in the morning. So much for "we're never going on a bear hunt again", a promise we'll have broken twice before we've been working for an hour.

Until then we have the weekend in Talavera, having spent Friday evening setting up our book fair in the school. During the Peninsular War, as the Spanish do not call it, it was the site of a battle, something I know from reading not Wikipedia but The Mill On The Floss, in which one of the characters often mentions that he fought there:
Mr Poulter, it appeared, had been a conspicuous figure at Talavera, and had contributed not a little to the peculiar terror with which his regiment of infantry was regarded by the enemy.
Talavera is best known for its ceramics, on display in shops of all the city and aslo on the walls of the Basilica, inside which the votive candles have been replaced by electonic versions, presumably for fear of fire. If one inserts a coin, a little red wick glows at the top of them, but no actual flame. Anyone who knows Dylan could hardly help but think of flesh-coloured Christs that glow in the dark.

Talavera was at its most prominent as a Roman city, and being situated in Castilla-La Mancha it's within the fiefdom of María Dolores De Cospedal García, regional president as well as secretary-general of the Partido Popular. If there is anything Roman about Cospedal it would be her arrogance, and if one were to compare her to, say, Crassus, one might also note their common loathing for opponents and for the plebeians in general, as well as a shared taste for power, and for wealth. As far as ability is concerned, Cospedal compares poorly with Crassus. So would most of us, perhaps - but Cospedal also compares poorly with most of us as well.

This is Cospedal, giving a press conference last Thursday.

You don't really get the best out of Cospedal from a screenshot: she has a most unnerving habit of looking all over the room, while listening to a question, yet without moving her body, as if she were looking through the eyeholes in a picture, or trapped in a sarcophagus. When speaking, however, she is decidedly less lively, her preferred technique being to repeat the same phrase several times with minor alterations, which may be effective if you are a master orator addressing an audience of thousands, but it is less so when you are addressing a press conference in a monotone. A monotone dull even by the standards of monotony.

Having used her victory at the last regional elections to do what rightwingers have been doing all over the world of late, i.e. to make gigantic cuts that appeared nowhere in their manifestos, Cospedal finds it hard to go out much in Castilla-La Mancha without being met by crowds of thoroughly unhappy and hostile people. Right now she is particularly unlikely to be made welcome in the twenty-one small towns whose medical centres she is currently trying, not entirely without difficulty, to shut to night-time admissions.

Fortunately for Dolores though she is able to spend much of her time in Madrid, performing party duties, and it was in that role that she was speaking to the press last week. This is not to say it was a wholly happy occasion, though, since the item for discussion was the story run by El País that very morning. According to the paper:
The ruling Popular Party's internal accounting between 1990 and 2008, to which EL PAIS has had access, shows that the conservative grouping's leading members were paid regular sums of money aside from their official salaries. The files, kept by former PP treasurers Álvaro Lapuerta and Luis Bárcenas, comprise a series of incoming items in the form of donations from companies, especially construction firms, and outgoing expenses, which include the payments to party leaders.

Among those who received payments on the side, according to the accounts kept by Bárcenas, is Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Good Lord. But do go on...
The PP president first appears listed in 1997, with sums of money next to his name that consistently add up to 25,200 euros a year, divided either in quarterly or six-monthly payments, and continuing up to 2008.
Bless my soul. Anybody else prominent alleged to be involved?
The party's current secretary general, Dolores de Cospedal, also figures in the papers, with two entries of 7,500 euros next to her name in the second half of 2008, immediately after she had been ratified in her post by the PP convention in June of that year. De Cospedal has publicly denied knowledge that these payments were made by Bárcenas to party officials.
That's Cospedal's name handwritten in the righthand column on El País's extraordinary Thursday front page. Rajoy's is in the lefthand column.

The handwriting is, apparently, that of Luis Bárcenas.

All this has gone round the world, of course, El País' yellow-highlighted story having found itself on many other websites and front pages since Thursday morning, and one would not need to be particularly interested in Spain to know that Rajoy denied everything in a statement at PP headquarters today: the same headquarters where Luis Bárcenas maintains an office despite having resigned as party treasurer four years ago. Outside, demonstrations.

Cospedal was there to see them, having consulted lawyers on Friday and promised legal action against El País. Many of the demonstrators, meanwhile, will have put their names to an e-petition calling for the resignation of the entire PP leadership, a petition which by the time I clicked Publish had accumulated 702,641 supporters.

This is all good fun, of course, as well as being conceivably the greatest political crisis since the attempted coup of 1981. (It's often the details, the little revelations, that one appreciates most, and I particularly enjoyed learning that others among the accused in the Gürtel case called Bárcenas "Luis El Cabrón", Luis The Bastard.) If we're lucky, it will lead to the downfall of the government and the disintegration of the Partido Popular. It ought to.

Not all of the PP's opponents are necessarily so enthusiastic, and not all of them for bad reasons. Tomás Gómez, who leads PSOE in the Madrid region, and is on the left in his party, said - before the El País story, true, but after the news broke of Bárcenas's 22 million euros in a Swiss account:
por cada Bárcenas hay mil concejales honrados
"For every Bárcenas there are a thousand honest councillors."

Why would he say so? Because, you might say, PSOE as well as PP has a lot to hide. Maybe. Gómez must know this, and must also be aware of corruption in his own party. But it may also be that Gómez is aware that the public are liable to see politics, and all politicans, as essentially corrupt, and that this is a dangerous trend in a democracy.

Moreover, what happens if the government falls - as it should - and the result is not just a political crisis but a more acute financial crisis, in which the financial markets demand to have the candidate of their choice, elected by nobody, imposed, as they did in Greece and Italy?

Gómez continued: propone sustituir el poder democrático de los ciudadanos por el poder tecnocrático de un experto se está debilitando el poder de la democracia.
"When...they propose to replace the democratic government of the people with technocratic government by an expert, democracy is weakened." Gómez asks who will oversee the representatives of money - a good question which will not be asked enough if such a turn of events comes to pass.

In the present, though, the ¡DIMISIÓN! placards are being waved in Calle Génova, and rightly so.

And I wonder - if Rajoy does have to go, who would the financial markets like to replace him? They have, of course, an ideal candidate available to them, a former government minister, a former head of the IMF and a leading banker.

They might have to give him a miss though. That's Rodrigo Rato's name in the lefthand column, just above Rajoy's.