Between Two Waters

February 25th is the anniversary of the death of Paco de Lucía, the greatest flamenco guitarist of modern times and, for many, the greatest who ever lived. I wrote the following essay a couple of years ago about Paco de Lucía, the modernist and traditionalist tensions in his music and how that conflict can still be seen in flamenco today. Below is an excerpt; to read the whole thing, click here.

Antorrín Heredia stands on one side of the small stage. A stocky, middle-aged man, his black hair tumbles, long and greasy, over his shoulders and his eyes are closed. One hand is holding a walking cane, upon which he is leaning. The other grasps a short metal bar, which he suddenly lifts above his head and swings down onto a blacksmith’s anvil. The noise is surprisingly light and bell-like and Antorrín repeats the action again and again, beating out a complex, stop-start rhythm, before throwing his head back and singing.

This is flamenco, but not as most Spaniards know it. Singing a cappella like this – or a palo seco – is a throwback to the music’s 19th-century origins, when those who performed it frequently worked as blacksmiths, or travelling salesmen and even the accompaniment of a guitar was uncommon. It was a time when life was tough for most Spaniards, with poverty, disease and violence to contend with and flamenco music reflected that.

And yet, Antorrín is in 21st century Madrid, in La Quimera, a small venue which he owns on the edge of the relatively well-heeled Salamanca neighbourhood. Supermarkets, banks and bars are everywhere and a Cash Converters exchange store – that symbol of rampant consumerism – is nearby. Perhaps only Las Ventas bullring, sitting a few hundred yards away next to the Madrid ring-road, distinguishes this area from a middle-class district in almost any European city…. [To read more, click here.]


The brother-in-law

The brother-in-law, or cuñado, holds a prominent, yet unenviable, position in Spanish society, transcending the realms of the family tree to become something more than just a relative. He’s a symbol, a social phenomenon, a state of mind.

The exact characteristics of the archetypal cuñado are up for debate, but they tend to be negative. He is an extroverted, matey, slightly boorish, know-it-all who greets you effusively but doesn’t really listen to what you have to say. On the contrary, he loudly broadcasts his own opinions, often political, over Christmas dinner.

Albert Rivera
Albert Rivera: first in line in the conga.

“For the brother-in-law, everything is communism, everything is Venezuela, everything is Eta,” Lorena G. Maldonado, of El Español newspaper, has written. “In his holiday photo album he’s pretending to hold up the Tower of Pisa, he’s first in line when there’s a conga at a wedding, he stirs the Sunday paella and smiles as he says: ‘I’m Spanish, what do you want me to beat you at?’ He saw the property bubble coming a long way off, he was there, he already knew, he told you so…”

For many (Maldonado included), Spain’s highest-profile cuñado is Albert Rivera. That’s in great part because in 2016, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, in one of those finely calculated moves that he specialises in, cast the leader of Ciudadanos as such during a parliamentary debate. The slightly comic accusation was based on Iglesias’s claim that Rivera’s ideology derived from the same family as the right-wing Popular Party (PP). But there was also a hint of the more personal use of the term – the smug paella-stirrer – which has since stuck to Rivera like rice to a pan.

In some ways he does indeed fit the cuñado stereotype, if only in terms of aesthetics and style. There is the clean-cut-but-casual attire, the bumptious self-confidence, the apparent knowledge about any subject and ready response to every problem, which can both impress and grate. But even his critics now have to take Spain’s most popular national party leader seriously.

In recent months, Ciudadanos has been riding high in voter intention polls, even proving to be the most popular party in Spain, according to Metroscopia. Rivera, meanwhile, is regarded less and less as a mere opposition upstart who bangs on about corruption and Catalonia and more and more as a potential prime minister.

But while that possibility becomes increasingly feasible, the place Ciudadanos occupies on the political spectrum has remained somewhat fuzzy.

The brother-in-law, Maldonado explains, with a large dose of irony, “is neither on the left or the right; instead he’s straight up, salt-of-the-earth, genuine.” What Maldonado means is: that’s how he presents himself, although after a few glasses of La Rioja he’ll start on about communism and Eta.

Rivera, meanwhile, in a very cuñado-esque bit of rhetoric, told The Economist recently: “We have to move away from the old left-right axis”. Not so long ago, his party was describing itself as “centre-left”, its business-friendliness offset by mostly liberal social policies. But almost exactly a year ago, Ciudadanos redefined its ideology, removing “social democracy” from its statutes, leaving a definition of it as “constitutionalist, liberal, democratic and progressive”, which does little to clarify the issue (after all, who would suggest that being “unconstitutional, illiberal, undemocratic and regressive” was a good idea?). A dig into the archives further muddies matters, with Rivera flip-flopping on gay marriage, opposing abortion as a right, showing an ambivalent take on historical memory, announcing a refusal to support Rajoy as head of a new government in 2015, forming a putative governing pact with the Socialists in 2016, then supporting a new PP government (with Rajoy at its head) a few months later.

Confused? Understandably so. But then again, Spanish politics is a weird, many-mirrored place at the moment and similar charges of inconsistency could also be levelled at the Socialists or the Catalan secessionists.

But recent events in Catalonia, where Rivera’s party has been hogging the unionist limelight, have, finally, appeared to nail it down as a party of the right. With Rajoy’s PP still mired in a smorgasboard of corruption scandals and having failed to solve the territorial crisis, Ciudadanos has benefitted, winning the Catalan election under the candidacy of Inés Arrimadas and cheerfully surfing the wave of Spanish neo-nationalism. To put it crassly, the Catalan crisis has been kind to Ciudadanos.

Conspiracy-prone supporters of independence regularly claim Ciudadanos are right-wing extremists and rabid independentistas tend to portray them as fascist, a term that has lost its currency in this age of the easy insult and which really isn’t relevant in this debate. (One thuggish wag painted “Neo-fachas” on the doorstep of the party in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat recently; one twitter user accused me of receiving funding from Ciudadanos the other day for suggesting in an article that the party was moving away from the PP on the historical memory issue).

But no, they are not the crypto-Francoist, goose-stepping loonies their enemies desperately try to portray them as.

Yet it does seem that Ciudadanos finds itself in a rum, rather disturbing, position – let’s call it Rivera’s Conundrum.

Created as a nationwide force in 2014 with the promise of introducing a centrist, transition-style statesmanship to Spain’s tribal politics, in Catalonia the party has become precisely the opposite, doing as much as any other to rattle the cage of tribalism. The more polarised the territorial crisis has become, the more Ciudadanos has hoovered up anti-independence votes. And it has heartily contributed to that polarisation, positioning itself as yin to Carles Puigdemont’s exiled yang, with the PP often a hapless bystander.

One of my favourite cartoons of recent months was a picture of Rivera marching along, bashing a drum marked “Article 155” – the clause in the constitution allowing Madrid to implement direct rule. His insistence throughout much of last year that this drastic measure be introduced often left Rajoy looking timid and, dare I say it, moderate, in comparison.

Ciudadanos’s approach to this issue was on display recently in Madrid during a BBC World Questions debate, panelled by representatives of Ciudadanos, the PP, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and journalist Ana Romero. The most belligerent voice in the room was not that of the PP’s Francisco Martínez or ERC’s Alfred Bosch. It was Begoña Villacis, of Ciudadanos, whose insistence on attacking the Catalan independence movement at every turn – even, bizarrely, when the debate had moved on to Gibraltar – which gave the event a slightly sour aftertaste.

And there are signs that, in its determination to keep stealing voters from the PP, Ciudadanos’s hard-line playing to the gallery is seeping out of Catalonia, into its national politics (see its attempts to remove the Basque government’s historic right to controlling its own taxes, or its U-turn on the issue of life imprisonment).

So where does this leave Spain’s best-known brother-in-law? After years of shifting around, and with the corridors of power apparently beckoning, it’s time he made clear where exactly on the political right he and his party stand as a government-in-waiting.

Worryingly, Rivera’s Conundrum dictates that if he shows any willingness to step back, to make concessions – to stop banging the drum – he’ll lose votes. Given that Puigdemont’s Conundrum dictates similar terms for the ousted Catalan president, don’t expect to see much bridge-building any time soon.

Spain’s people of the year

5. Irene Montero.

It’s been a funny old year for Podemos. The party began 2017 hobbled by infighting as its two most prominent figures, Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, battled for its soul. Iglesias emerged as the winner and his deputy was banished to a lesser role, with Irene Montero taking his place as the party’s parliamentary spokesperson. Amid the sound and fury in Catalonia, Podemos struggled to make itself heard at times this year as it carefully trod a path between unionism and separatism. But in the spring, it did manage to hog the headlines when it presented a no-confidence motion against prime minister Mariano Rajoy. The proposal failed but it allowed the 29-year-old Montero to deliver a withering parliamentary attack on Rajoy and his party and to announce her own arrival as a political player.

4. Garbiñe Muguruza.

Although Garbiñe Muguruza only won two tournaments in 2017, the fact that one of them was Wimbledon made this a year to remember for the Caracas-born tennis player. Her high-energy game, built on powerful groundstrokes, helped the 24-year-old beat Venus Williams in straight sets in the final at the All England Club. She also held the world number one ranking (before losing it to Simona Halep) and took a WTA Player of the Year award. “Muguruza should win another Slam in 2018, and maybe even two,” warned Baseline website. With Rafa Nadal back at the pinnacle of the men’s game, it has been a year to celebrate for Spanish tennis.

3. Inés Arrimadas.

Inés Arrimadas has long been a thorn in the side of the Catalan independence movement. As the Popular Party (PP) and Socialists lost ground in the region, her Ciudadanos party emerged as the leading unionist voice and Arrimadas as an aggressive and effective critic of separatism. But this year, the 36-year-old has been even more in the news, assuming her new dual role as leader of the party in Catalonia and its national spokeswoman with aplomb. Arrimadas ended 2017 by delivering an historic electoral result: she secured 37 seats in the regional chamber, making Ciudadanos the first non-nationalist party ever to come first in a Catalan election. That remarkable result will almost certainly not be enough to make her the new regional premier, but it did highlight how unionist Catalans finally found their voice after a tumultuous few months.

2. Javier Martínez.

Amid all the political histrionics in Catalonia this year, a genuine tragedy did take place in the region: a terrorist rampage along Barcelona’s Ramblas on August 17th, followed by a similar attack in Cambrils the next day, leaving a total of 16 people dead. The official response ranged from the impressive to the petty and to their immense shame, a number of public figures saw the aftermath as an opportunity to advance their political agenda. But in a year when clumsiness and mediocrity was so often on display from national leaders, others showed a remarkable degree of integrity. Among them was Javier Martínez, father of a three-year-old boy, Xavi, who died on the Ramblas in the first terror attack. Just days afterwards, he embraced an imam in the town of Rubí, in a gesture of unity that was as astonishing as it was rational.

1.The “injured woman”.

Long billed as the day the Catalan government would hold its outlawed referendum on independence, October 1st always looked like a day of reckoning for Spain’s territorial crisis. But the vote itself was overshadowed by the behaviour of the national police and civil guard, who were deployed to several polling stations where they proceeded to attack voters and seize ballot boxes. Both sides of this conflict have been guilty at various times of a crass disrespect for democracy, but as footage and pictures of this violence travelled around the world (along with other, fake, footage), it became apparent that this had been a monumental error of judgement by the Spanish state, whose efforts did not even manage to halt the referendum. Catalan separatists were handed another grievance against Spain, one that will no doubt stick in their minds for years to come. I have chosen the (unidentified) woman in this picture as Spain’s person of the year, not because of anything she has consciously set out to do, but because she represents the entrenchment and polarisation that the Catalan dispute has caused and the senseless violence it provoked.

What they think of us (part 2)


1 Oct Pic

“Because we are right! And because we are strong!” – Lluís Companys

“Let’s not go to sleep dreaming of Scotland only to wake up in Ulster.” Lluís Rabell

In early October I met up with a Catalan friend in a café in Barcelona. It had been a while since I had seen him and although the last time we had spoken he’d been a supporter of independence, he had also expressed a certain scepticism about the whole process and was able to laugh at its more absurd manifestations. This time, however, his opinion had hardened and his mood darkened. The October 1st independence referendum, which had taken place just a few days earlier, was still fresh in his mind. Friends and members of his family had been in polling stations that had been set upon by the civil guard and national police as they attempted to stop Catalans from voting that day.

My friend recounted what had happened in disbelief, becoming increasingly distraught as he did so. Eventually, he blurted out: “They won’t even let us fucking vote!” and there, in the middle of the café, he started sobbing.

A few minutes later he left and as I was finishing my coffee, a woman at the next table came over and asked if I was journalist. Yes, I said, cagily.

“I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation,” she said, barely able to contain her outrage. “That man was telling some terrible lies.”

To my relief, that was as far as the conversation went. But both episodes spoke volumes to me about this dispute and how it has taken a disturbingly visceral hold of those on both sides.

One of the striking, and at times laughable, fallouts of the Catalan crisis has been how it has reduced apparently rational, adult intellectuals to the level of teenage trolls. It has become fertile ground for a particularly alarming brand of echo-chambered ranting and name-calling, not just between everyday twitter users, but also at the supposedly highest level.

This has presented us with some sights I never imagined I’d witness – such as Julian Assange tweeting in Catalan and then embarking on a very public sandpit exchange with novelist Arturo Pérez-Reverte. That spat told us little more than how easily a couple of grown men could tumble into a pit of infantile gobbledygook. But other, apparently similar, fracas generated by the Catalan situation have been more interesting and perhaps more informative.

In the wake of October 1st, the The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson wrote an account of what had happened that day, putting the police violence at the heart of his relatively short article.

“Whatever the avowed legality of the action, it was not only a shocking display of official violence employed against mostly peaceful and unarmed civilians but an extraordinary expression of cognitive dissonance,” wrote Anderson. “Since when did European governments prevent their citizens from voting?”

That article, and others in the international media, have drawn an irate response from within Spain, at least from the unionist side. The novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina was particularly irked, furiously taking issue with Anderson’s description of the civil guard as a “paramilitary” force. The use of that word alone, Muñoz Molina suggested in El País, showed that this journalist “is deliberately lying, with no qualms he is aware that he is lying and aware of the effect his lies will have…”

Earlier, in a paragraph that should be pored over for years by those seeking to understand the complex, barbed, psychology of modern Spain, Muñoz Molina had written:

They want us to be bullfighters, heroic guerrillas, inquisitors, and victims. They love us so much that they hate it when we question the wilful blindness upon which they build their love. They love the idea of a rebellious, fascism-fighting Spain so much that they are not ready to accept that fascism ended many years ago. They love what they see as our quaint backwardness so much that they feel insulted if we explain to them how much we have changed in the last 40 years…

Several similar articles followed that of Muñoz Molina, many of them published by El País, which seems to have become the standard-bearer for Spanish democracy’s wounded pride. The newspaper’s op-ed department head, José Ignacio Torreblanca, even invented a new word – Anglocondescension – to describe “the insufferable sentiment of Anglo American superiority that we have been suffering since the October 1st referendum in Catalonia.”

Like many of his colleagues, he cited bullfights, flamenco and paella as tropes that lazy foreign journalists apparently lean on when writing about – and talking down to – Spain. In another article – yes, another one – in El País, Maite Rico took issue with foreign observers’ obsession with “bullfighters-civil war-García Lorca-paella” (where does this thing about paella come from?).

I won’t go into how accurate or not the foreign media has been about Catalonia over the last few weeks – after all, the sheer volume of coverage has been overwhelming. But the crisis has opened Spain up to a level of international scrutiny that it has probably never experienced before, given the impact of social media and 24-hour news.

As for the response of Spanish commentators to what the foreign press has been saying about their country over the last few weeks, they seem very much in line with what I call The-New-York-Times-Thinks-We’re-Shit Syndrome (TNYTTWSS) – a serious but little understood pathology that is particularly prevalent in the Iberian Peninsula. Previously, TNYTTWSS manifested itself as a kind of enthusiastic curiosity about what foreign media thought about Spain. But in recent weeks it has curdled into a spiky defensiveness.

Much of the anger of Messrs Muñoz Molina and Torreblanca and others seems to be focused on the constant referencing of the Franco era in coverage (Muñoz Molina’s article was headlined “In Francoland”). Can’t you just forget about our past, they are saying, it has nothing to do with our present. It’s a fair point and their frustration is palpable. But ignoring Spain’s recent past when trying to understand its current political/constitutional/territorial/democratic (take your pick) crisis makes little sense. The country has made huge strides forward in the last four decades, but even its blithest champion would have to agree, for example, that its judiciary has a credibility problem, or that the governing Popular Party’s torrent of corruption scandals go beyond the realms of embarrassment, and that Spanish voters have a disturbing habit of ignoring such aberrations when casting their vote. Do we just write off these phenomena as anomalies, existing without historical background? No, we look for reasons, many – but not all – of which can be found in the hectic years of the democratic transition, or beyond, in the democratic vacuum of the dictatorship.

Similarly, recent oddities such as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump can only be fully understood with the benefit of historical context (whether that be Britain’s colonial past and waning international influence, the decline of the US rust belt and longstanding racial tensions, and so on). But looking hard at a country’s democratic credentials and recent history when it sends armed riot police in to deal with unarmed voters, or jails pro-independence leaders indefinitely as part of a probe into rebellion and sedition is not unreasonable or part of an international plot to diss Spain. It’s common sense.

Anderson’s article, it has to be said, did lack some more recent context. He didn’t mention the undemocratic behaviour of the Catalan pro-independence parties in late 2015, when, after failing to win 50 percent of votes in a plebiscite-election, they declared victory and handed themselves a mandate to push ahead towards secession. Nor did he mention the highly dubious behaviour of the Catalan parliament on September 6th and 7th of this year, when the speaker altered the order of the day in order to allow two contested laws paving the way for independence to be steam-rollered through the house.

But, for some time now, both sides in this dispute have been gleefully “spitting upwards”, as the Argentines would say.

For Carles Puigdemont and his Catalan government that meant using a series of legitimate grievances against the Spanish state and government to push on towards a hazily sketched-out independent republic, regardless of legality and the wishes of a majority of Catalans, even when it became clear that declaring independence would accelerate the flight of companies from the region and rob it temporarily of its existing devolved powers.

For Mariano Rajoy it has meant pandering to the basest instincts of the right wing of his party, the Madrid media and his voters, by refusing even to acknowledge that this was a political problem. For 24 hours – on October 1st – Rajoy was the prime minister of a country that resembled a banana republic. Since then he has found himself forced to resort to the most drastic response available: direct rule. This most unionist of politicians has done more long-term damage to the nation’s territorial unity than any Spanish leader in recent times. If Catalans still commemorate the fall of Barcelona to Bourbon troops three centuries ago, you can bet October 1st 2017 will stay fresh in their memory for some time to come.

The spit, as the Argentines might say, has only just started landing.

‘No tinc por’


Spain has suffered two jihadist terror attacks over the last 13 years. In March 2004, bombs planted on trains in Madrid killed 191 people and in the days that followed, hundreds of thousands of Spaniards turned out onto the streets to express their condemnation of the attack and solidarity for the victims. Then, as it emerged that the government of José María Aznar had erroneously told the country that Eta had been responsible, the mood changed. Aznar’s desperate insistence that it was not Al-Qaeda (and therefore nothing to do with Spain’s presence in Iraq) failed to convince voters, who delivered a shock result in the general election three days after the attack, putting the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in power.

Many voters on the right would never accept that result as legitimate. Egged on by certain media (especially El Mundo) and politicians in Aznar’s Partido Popular (PP), the more gullible and conspiracy minded continued to believe that Eta – and even elements of the Spanish state or Socialist Party – had been involved in plotting the attack.

I would not wish on any country the poisonous atmosphere that Spain saw in the following months, during which the legitimacy of the new government was constantly undermined and relatives of some of those killed in the attack were insulted in the street for not accepting the cranks’ version of events.

The country has changed a great deal since then, in many ways for the better, and the so-called “11-M” conspiracy has more or less evaporated. Thankfully, we have not seen the same kind of collective madness in the wake of the Ramblas and Cambrils attacks of August 17-18.

However, other schisms have become apparent in recent days.

On the train from Madrid to Barcelona on August 18th, I bumped into a Catalan congresswoman from the Socialist Party and I asked her if she thought the recent attacks would have any effect on Catalonia’s plans to stage an illegal referendum on independence from Spain on October 1. The gist of her response was that it wouldn’t and that very soon, Spanish politics would be back to normal.

I agreed, but I think neither of us anticipated what followed: an impressive show of unity, followed by confusion and plenty of bile.

That unity was the gathering of politicians and King Felipe along with thousands of others in Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya for a minute’s silence, the day after the van attack in the city. The chants of “No tinc por” (“I’m not afraid”) that followed were deeply moving and as businesses opened up again that day and tourists once again wandered the Ramblas en masse, it seemed that this was the best kind of response to a senseless act.

But barely had the candles been lit on the Ramblas’s improvised shrines to the victims (see photo above) than things started to sour.

Much of that curdling has been played out in the media. An ill-judged editorial in El País needlessly dragged the Catalan independence issue into the Barcelona attack fallout, lamenting the “flagrant breaking of laws, the games of deceit… and political opportunism” of the northeastern region’s government.

Meanwhile, a blame game has ensued, with many in the media and security forces apparently determined to highlight the failure of the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, to heed concerns which had apparently informally been expressed by Belgian authorities about the imam at the centre of the plot, Abdelbaki Es Satty.

The Mossos’s hogging of the headlines after shooting several of the terrorists appears to have bothered some in Madrid, as does the fact that the Catalan police chief Josep Lluís Trapero, and the regional premier, Carles Puigdemont, offered updates on the investigation in Catalan rather than Spanish.

“Is it possible to offer a greater level of stupidity, meanness and provincialism (not to say necrophilia)?” fumed Pedro Pitarch, a retired lieutenant general, of a televised appearance by Puigdemont after the attacks, on his blog.

Meanwhile, others have been quick to blame Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, for the attack, for not having installed bollards at the top of the Ramblas (Alcorcón mayor David Pérez, of the PP, accused her of “paving the way” for the terrorists).

Such huffing and puffing from is perhaps inevitable after a tragedy of this kind. But the political context for all this is unprecedented, lending an extra layer of tension: the October 1 independence referendum is the culmination of half a decade of political crisis and deep uncertainty, undoubtedly fuelling much of the unnecessary behaviour of recent days on both “sides” of the territorial argument. It helps explain, for example, the determination of some supporters of independence to trumpet the rather unconvincing argument that their region’s response to the attack is proof in itself that they are ready to form a new state.

One fiercely pro-independence man I met on the Ramblas on August 18th told me that “it’s not the time to bring out the flags” because displays of nationalism at that moment would distract attention from the victims and he had no problem with the fact that the Spanish prime minister and king were in the city. But many others saw things differently, and the pro-independence estelada was a common feature of the anti-terror march a week later in Barcelona, as were boos and whistles for Rajoy and King Felipe (justified, supposedly, by the “hypocrisy” of a Spanish state that does business with Saudi Arabia).

What would Javier Martínez, the father of the three-year-old boy Xavi who was killed on the Ramblas, think of all this? Amid the flag-waving, political jockeying and finger-pointing he embraced an imam in the town of Rubí just days after losing his son in the attack in what has to be the ultimate act of unity and defiance.

So often in the wake of an attack like this we are told that we have to make sure our lives are not overly disrupted, because “that’s what the terrorists want”. Yes, but they also want us divided and unsure of who our allies are. In the last few days we have not seen the hateful delirium that gripped Spain in the spring of 2004. But the divisions are nonetheless there and everyone – politicians, police, retired military, newspaper editors, bloggers, unionists and separatists – would do well to step back from their agenda and glance at the bigger picture.

Abdalá makes it look easy

One of the most cogent definitions of populism I’ve ever heard is that it seeks to make the business of being a politician look easy. If that is indeed the case, Abdalá Bucaram, erstwhile president of Ecuador, fits the bill. He certainly makes handling a crowd look a good deal easier than the populists who have emerged in his wake in recent years.

An Ecuadorian friend recently showed me this clip of Bucaram in action on the campaign trail three years ago:

The wrong gong

On July 4th, a wave capsized a boat carrying 52 Sub-Saharan migrants from the Moroccan coast north across the Mediterranean. Three men were rescued by the Spanish coastguard and the other 49 of those who were on board are believed to have drowned.

Many things tend to go through your mind after hearing or reading about a tragedy like this: what exactly caused it, the lives lost, the terrible grief of the families affected – and, of course, our own good fortune at avoiding a similar fate.

All of those things occurred to me on this occasion. But it also got me thinking about the Princess of Asturias Prize – that esteemed honour conferred every year on an array of high-achieving individuals and organisations. Last month, the prize’s jury announced it was awarding its prestigious “Concord” accolade to the European Union. The jury highlighted EU values such as “freedom, human rights and solidarity,” values, it added, that “project hope for the future in uncertain times.”

The Princess of Asturias Prize jury weren’t to know that 49 people would die needlessly on the EU’s doorstep just a few weeks after this grand announcement. But they could have made a pretty safe bet that something similar was going to happen. All they had to do was look at the news.

The Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado (CEAR), a refugee and migrant charity, estimates that more than 5,000 people died attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe last year – an average of 14 people each day. It says 40,000 people have died making the crossing this century.

A damning new report by Amnesty International, “A Perfect Storm: The Failure of European Policies in the Central Mediterranean”, presents the EU not as a beacon of freedom, human rights and hope, but rather as a confused bungler when it comes to migration, especially via the frequently used departure point of Libya. The report says:

“This reckless European strategy is not just failing to deliver the desired outcome of stopping departures and preventing further loss of life, but is in fact exposing refugees and migrants to even greater risks at sea and, when intercepted, to disembarkation back in Libya, where they face horrific conditions in detention, torture and rape.”

It’s a pretty rum year for the Princess of Asturias jury to single out the EU for praise. Not only has the bloc’s failure to manage the Mediterranean migrant crisis hit new depths, but the UK has embarked on its confused, uncharted divorce from the Union and a French presidential election has been held in which the far-right candidate reached the second round.

Perhaps Leonor, the 11-year-old royal who lends her title to the annual prize, was the one who decided on this year’s Concord winner – it certainly looks like the decision of a child. But then a glance at the prize jury (24 out of 30 of who were middle-aged or elderly white males) suggests a group of people far removed from the reality of the capsizing zodiacs, inequality and populist politics that are among the EU’s current challenges.

It’s a strange thing, the Princess of Asturias Prize. Its categories include sport, the arts, communication and scientific research and its winners down the years have been a mixture of the richly deserving and the utterly baffling. The list of past winners is a sort of not-quite who’s-who of international big hitters, with the caveat that you’re more likely to win the prize if you’re Spanish.

For every sensible choice, there’s another seemingly random one: for every Philip Roth there’s a Santiago Calatrava; for every Michael Schumacher there’s a Fernando Alonso (who won it two years before the German); for every National Geographic Society there’s a Google. New York City Marathon, anyone? Yes, it won in 2014.

And now it’s the EU’s turn to accept this oddly-shaped gong. Let’s hope it and the prize jury take a long hard look at themselves over the next year.

The Corner

In recent weeks I have had the honour of having my thoughts on Spanish politics and other news published on the excellent English-language website The Corner. My articles for the site can be found here and I will be posting links to them on this, my personal webpage. However, I will occasionally still post other, separate thoughts and musings on Spain and the Iberosphere on this site.

My most recent article for The Corner was about the apparently unkillable Pedro Sánchez…

Pedro Sánchez 2.0

It was the result Spain’s Socialist bigwigs had feared: a resounding victory for Pedro Sánchez in their party’s primary on Sunday, beating Andalusia premier Susana Díaz and former Basque premier Patxi López, to become leader for a second time.

Many had believed Sánchez was dead and buried last autumn, when his first spell as leader of the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) ended in acrimony. His ouster had been triggered by two poor general election results, followed by a refusal to abstain in a parliamentary investiture vote in order to allow Mariano Rajoy to form a new conservative administration

But this has been one of the unlikeliest political resurrections Spain has seen, made possible by an equally unlikely makeover on the part of Sánchez…(See article)


Revisiting corruption: Why so damn much?

In April 2010, I wrote an article headlined “The rebirth of corruption”. At that time, there seemed to be an endless flow of corruption scandals in Spain, tainting the names of a long list of politicians and I wanted to understand why this problem had the country in its grip.

At the risk of coming across as a self-regarding buffoon, I have published most of that article again below, with the benefit of seven years’ hindsight. I’ve done this because, if anything, there seems to have been a re-rebirth of corruption since 2010 and the sordid revelations of back then pale in comparison with the torrent of scandal that continues to pour through Spain’s democratic arena. Gürtel, Púnica, Malaya, Brugal, Bárcenas, EREs, Operación Catalunya, Lezo: the dark underbelly of Spanish politics and the investigations it has prompted have generated a very peculiar lexicon.

I still stand by most of what I wrote back then, at least in terms of the causes of Spain’s corruption, which was the gist of the article. However, I do blush a bit on reading of how the problem was supposedly confined to local, and not national, politicians and how Spain does not have a national leader who is “constantly facing corruption allegations or ducking them with questionable political manoeuvres”.

It’s also interesting to note how, in the spring of 2010, Spain’s two-party system appeared to be in no danger of being broken up. The indignados protest movement would not happen for another year, Podemos wouldn’t arrive for another four – but the disgraceful behaviour of so many members of Spain’s political class are as responsible as anyone for both phenomena.

I think the most pertinent point in the article comes via Josep Ramoneda, who worries about how a “totalitarianism of indifference” might allow a culture of corruption to overwhelm politics and society. Or to put it another way: if you don’t want to be governed by bandits, don’t vote for them…

…At the end of 2009, Attorney General Cándido Conde-Pumpido revealed that 730 public officials were facing criminal investigation for corruption. He announced this figure as part of an effort to counter claims by the PP that it was being victimised by the justice system. The attorney general’s office, he insisted, was probing only 200 members of the PP, compared to 264 members of the Socialist Party. “The justice system doesn’t go after particular politicians, it just goes after the corrupt, wherever they are,” Conde-Pumpido said. “Unfortunately, they are everywhere.”

Political corruption is a vice commonly associated with developing countries. Dictatorships, banana republics and failed states are usually in its grip, but Spain is none of those things. It has a three-decade-old parliamentary democracy, has been modernised almost out of recognition in that time, and is a prominent member of the EU and NATO. Corruption scandals rocked the Socialist government of Felipe González in the early 1990s and eventually helped unseat him, but the country’s democracy was relatively callow then, and one party had dominated for most of that time.  Why, then, has this problem returned with such a vengeance?

Sebastian Balfour, author of The Reinvention of Spain: Nation and Identity since Democracy, sees the decade-long construction boom that sustained the economy until 2008 as a major factor. At its peak, nearly a quarter of the EU’s new homes were being built in Spain, and the country’s laws ensured that local authorities –even in small towns – decided where and when those homes would be erected.

“The municipalities are the Cinderellas of the system because of the power of the autonomous regions,” Balfour, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at London’s LSE, told Iberosphere. “Local councils get very little funds, so they reclassify the land – either for the interests of the village… or for personal gain.”

That personal gain would come through bribes paid by constructors – in the form of a “commission” – to deem the land eligible for building on, even though it might be an area of natural beauty or even environmental interest. In the Madrid region alone, senior authorities in towns such as Majadahonda and Boadilla have been investigated for these kinds of abuses.

The post-Franco “barons”

The system of regional governance itself is also to blame. In Spain, there are 17 autonomous communities, each with its own particular relationship with the state. This semi-federal system, implemented with the post-dictatorship constitution, has allowed parties – and individuals, in some cases – to dominate politics in parts of Spain ever since.

Galicia, the conservative Popular Party’s greatest stronghold, is a good example. For 22 of the last 28 years the party has governed there and former Franco minister Manuel Fraga was regional leader for 15 years. This kind of heavily consolidated powerbase creates an environment where abuse is, if not inevitable, then certainly tempting.

“At the local level there are only a few key players and usually the same people are there for a long time – maybe 20 years or more. So if you want to do business you need to have good relations with those people,” says Ramón Pacheco Pardo, lecturer in Spanish Contemporary Politics at King’s College, London.

In the Gürtel case, those “good relations” meant systematic bribery and extravagant gifts for politicians, such as Louis Vuitton handbags and designer suits. It’s no coincidence that the regions where the Gürtel network seems to have embedded its claws deepest are Galicia, Valencia and Madrid, all longstanding PP fortresses.

For the Socialists, Andalusia has been its own voter stronghold, while in Catalonia the CiU conservative nationalists have dominated for much of the democratic period. In the Basque Country, the PNV nationalists were unseated last year after 30 years in power. Each of those parties has faced at least a number of corruption investigations in their “home” region.

A curious feature of the glut of graft cases that have erupted in recent years is how almost all of them originate at a local level, with very few national politicians being sullied. The Gürtel case may have implicated individuals who were close to the government of José María Aznar between 1996 and 2004, but the former prime minister himself was seen as an austere presence after the decadence of the González administration.

This, however, does not necessarily mean that national politics is totally clean, rather that abuses at that level rarely see the light of day, says Víctor Sampedro, a political analyst and editor of 13-M. Multitudes online. “The two main parties have got used to a collusion that is inherited from the dictatorship,” he explains. “There hasn’t been a reform of the judiciary or the police since the death of Franco in 1975. There’s a lack of control of the elites.”

This antiquated state structure, Sampedro believes, means Spain lacks sufficient separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary. Anyone who has followed the bizarre legal case against Judge Baltasar Garzón for investigating Franco-era crimes knows that the judiciary is heavily politicised. A strong third political party on a national level might shake things up. But no group has been able to challenge the Socialist-PP duopoly since González took power in 1982.

A career in politics

Blaming corruption on “cultural” factors is always contentious and can easily lead to lazy stereotyping, such as the notion that southern Mediterranean countries are somehow by nature more prone to breaking the law. However, the political culture of a country can undoubtedly help explain the phenomenon and is crucial in understanding the reasons for abuses by public officials.

In Spain, politicians commonly get involved in politics at an early age, often in their twenties, and remain there until they retire. This idea of politics as a career is more embedded than other countries, such as Britain, where the exercising of another profession outside the political arena has only recently come under scrutiny. This clearly means that financially, these career politicians are relying purely on their public service for income. It also means that they are that much more determined to cling to their posts, despite the scandals that surround them.

This was the case in Valencia last year, when the number two of the region’s PP government, Ricardo Costa, initially refused to step down despite orders to do so from party headquarters in Madrid due to his implication in the Gürtel case. This illustrated not only how regional politicians can shore up enough power to defy the national leadership, but also the lack of a resignation culture in Spain.

Pacheco Pardo compares this to the British MP expenses scandal, which has seen dozens of representatives refrain from running for re-election despite not technically breaking the law. “With the expenses scandal, MPs actually gave money back; in Spain this doesn’t happen,” he says. “If you look at the PP right now, they’re trying to defend those involved (in Gürtel) – and those involved are not stepping down.”

This determination to ride scandals is also related to a degree of tolerance on the part of voters. While left-leaning Spaniards shouted abuse at Costa and his boss Francisco Camps as they arrived at public events during the Gürtel storm last year, PP voters screamed their support, despite the headlines staining the reputations of the men.

“Leave the business to me”

Sampedro attributes this puzzling refusal of voters – particularly right-wing ones – to punish their representatives for corruption to what he calls “sociological Francoism.” “Franco indoctrinated a large section of society with the notion that the exercise of power implies a certain degree of corruption,” he says.

Perhaps the paradigm of this school of thought was Jesús Gil y Gil, a right-wing populist mayor of Marbella and president of Atlético Madrid football club. Frequently under investigation and indeed arrested in 2000 for embezzling his own club, Gil was nonetheless a popular figure among many Spaniards, particularly in Marbella. The implied philosophy of this politician, says Sampedro, was “leave the business to me, because under me we’re all going to do well.”

This chimes with a theory held by Balfour that the Spanish transition to democracy in the late 1970s and early 1980s was never fully completed. At the time, the process was widely lauded as an example of cross-party consensus-building, as groups from both the Franco and Republican camps worked together to put the traumatic recent past behind them and create a democracy.  The relative smoothness of the transition, however, left gaps.

“There was an incomplete assimilation of democratic rules and protocols – particularly by the right – due to an incomplete transition,” says Balfour.

Part of any healthy democracy, of course, is a rigorous and probing media. Few countries have both a press that is truly free of political influence and politicians who are not in thrall to the media (just think of New Labour and Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp), and Spain is particularly prone to the former vice. Newspapers, radio and television are, for the most part, heavily politicised and their reporting of corruption scandals reflects this. The right-wing daily El Mundo, for example, did its best to avoid covering the Gürtel case until the story became overwhelming. Incidentally, the paper’s editor, Pedro J. Ramírez, was part of the cabal of on-side journalists that surrounded Jaume Matas, the PP’s former Balearic premier before his fall from grace.

The ‘Berlusconización’ of Spain?

One way in which Spanish newspapers differ enormously from their counterparts in many other countries is their lack of investigative journalism. In the United States, a deep tradition of uncovering politicians’ crimes and misdemeanours – from Richard Nixon to John Edwards – is seen almost as a fourth power of state, helping ensure lawmakers don’t step out of line and exposing them when they do. In Britain, a frenzied tabloid press leads the charge to do the same, albeit amid the search for salacious celebrity news.

“To launch an investigation at a newspaper you need lots of people, lots of time and lots of money,” says a journalist who has worked at a Spanish national newspaper since the 1970s.

“It’s not just a lack of money in Spain, it’s a lack of interest – there is no tradition of investigative journalism.”

When newspapers do get an exclusive on a scandal, it is more often than not due to a leak from a member of the investigation rather than down to laborious legwork at the source of the case.

Novelist Juan Goytisolo has lamented what he calls the Berlusconización of Spain – a slide towards an Italian-style lack of respect for the law on the part of those who govern. That may be an exaggerated view. Spain does not have a national leader who is constantly facing corruption allegations or ducking them with questionable political manoeuvres; nor is it in the grip of a mafia. Its media, despite its faults, is less politicised than it was two decades ago. Moreover, its democracy is balanced and stable.

But the country does clearly have a major problem, one that its express-speed modernisation has failed to tackle adequately. The structure of the Spanish state, a massive housing boom, the remnants of a pre-democratic mindset and a lack of rigour in the media have all allowed corruption to flourish.

However, ordinary Spaniards will also have to look at themselves as they wonder how they can stop their country from resembling Berlusconi’s Italy. A large portion of the Spanish economy operates on the black market, reflecting a dangerous tolerance of corner-cutting. Writer and broadcaster Josep Ramoneda has warned that “the totalitarianism of indifference” threatens to govern the country. Its citizens can at least make sure that does not happen.