“Because there’s one thing I know I’d like to live / long enough to savour / That’s when they finally put you in the ground / I’ll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.” – Elvis Costello
Shortly after the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013, Elvis Costello caused a stir by continuing to play his vitriolic song about the former prime minister, ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, at concerts. He was being crass and disrespectful, critics claimed. Costello responded by insisting he wasn’t celebrating Thatcher’s death, but that he still felt the same way about her policies. “I don’t feel vindicated,” he said. “I didn’t personally kill her.”
Two deaths in recent days have reminded me of this episode: that of Fidel Castro and also that of former Valencia mayor Rita Barberá. I’m not going to stretch the imagination by drawing parallels between the two (divisive figures with big personalities and authoritarian tendencies etc…) but it has been fascinating and instructive to watch the impact their deaths have had in Spain, particularly that of Barberá, who died of a heart attack in a Madrid hotel.
Having governed Valencia for a quarter of a century and been at the heart of the Popular Party’s power structure for many years, she was, in her heyday, a flamboyant, larger-than-life and autocratic figure, whose at times comical brashness and self-confidence reflected the fortunes of her city. “Rita believed that she was Valencia and that Valencia was her,” noted her biographer (suggesting that maybe those Fidel comparisons aren’t such a stretch after all).
Yet Barberá’s stock, like that of her city, would eventually plummet, dragged down by the weight of ludicrous overspending and a litany of corruption scandals. A money laundering case in which the former mayor was being investigated finally saw her pushed out of the PP in September, although she clung to her seat in the Senate. Her sidelining had seemed to be driven by younger figures in the party, such as Pablo Casado and Javier Maroto, whose personal loyalties to Barberá were trumped by their desperation to shake off the PP’s corrupt image. Many accounts suggest she had become something of a pariah for the PP, politically marginalised and shunned at social events as the corruption probe hung over her.
In recent weeks an image had therefore been conjured up of Barberá hiding away in forlorn exile, abandoned by friends, peering at the world from behind closed blinds – a Yoda figure, shuffling around the swamp in a galaxy far away.
And it was this image that many senior PP politicians have invoked as they have embarked on a very strange, public guilt trip. “Each person will have on his conscience the barbarities that he has said about Barberá, without any proof whatsoever,” said Justice Minister Rafael Catalá, who seemed to be questioning the evidence gathered by the anti-corruption office.
Many others have expressed similar sentiments, with the PP’s blame-scattergun sometimes aiming inside the party tent, but mainly beyond. Twitter users, said PP deputy Celia Villalobos, “condemned her to death.” PP spokesman Rafael Hernando, meanwhile, denied any kind of regret within the PP at Barberá’s treatment. Instead, he employed a bewildering array of metaphors to blame the “hyenas” of the media who had “lynched” her and “turned her into a shooting gallery”.
Podemos’s refusal to take part in a one-minute silent tribute to Barberá in Congress meant that party avoided charges of hypocrisy, but it unwittingly gave the PP a handy alibi: Look, they’re treating her even worse than we did.
This whole episode seems to have told us a lot about Spain’s attitude to death, as well as its relationship with corruption and the media.
The passing of any public figure here tends to provoke a particularly radical, and often fanciful, reappraisal of the deceased. The example of Jesús Gil y Gil springs to mind. After dying in 2004, the oafish, scandal-plagued former mayor of Marbella was talked about more as a national treasure rather than a national disgrace.
And while Barberá’s chequered career has been given a frantic makeover in recent days, those who reported on her alleged misdemeanours have been the target of vitriol. Gran Wyoming, the current affairs comic who is always more watchable when speaking seriously rather than reeling off scripted jokes, issued a timely warning that some of Barberá’s erstwhile friends were “taking advantage of the tragedy to take aim at certain media whose duty is to report, among other things, corruption cases, which are of interest to all Spaniards.”
As Elvis Costello would, I am sure, agree: being dead doesn’t make you right.