1 August, 2009

The El Mundo daily newspaper has been running a series of surveys of its readers to find out what they think of various aspects of national life at the end of the first 30 years of democracy. Some of the results have been very damning, but it’s doubtful that the politicians will take much notice of them. Contrary to popular belief, the Spaniards are not indifferent to corruption in high places and know exactly where to place the blame: Socialist politicians, local builders of all political parties and local councils of all political hues. More than 27% said the current Socialist government was more corrupt than the first one under Felipe Gonzalez (24%). Only 14% said the Partido Popular government headed by José María Aznar was corrupt. More than 62% said the politicians were the most corrupt, followed by the judiciary (14.4%) and the media (9%). As for politicians, the most corrupt were those in local government. On the economic front, nearly 60% thought the construction was the most corrupt, followed by the banks (18%). Nearly 80% want to Constitution changed in order to put limits on the nationalist parties while at a local level, the party that gets the most votes should form the local council, doing away with alliances between minority parties. And two thirds of those question said they did not believe that the whole truth about the 2004 Madrid bombings had been told.


12 November, 2008

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10 November, 2008

British police have launched another Operation Captura to track down criminals on the run on the Costa Blanca. In El Campello on the Costa Blanca, Crimestoppers are already putting up posters and handing out beer mats in a second drive to track down unwanted criminals thought to be hiding in Spain. A Crimestoppers’ spokesperson said: “We were blown away by the response to the first Operation Captura two years ago. The expats here really don’t want to have these people living among them and the beauty with Crimestoppers is that it’s totally anonymous so no one will ever know the tip-off came from them.” Of the 30 criminals featured in the first Operation Captura two years ago, 13 are now back in custody, including convicted killer James Hurley, who had been on the run for over a decade. Among the 10 faces on the new list are convicted paedophile Andrew Alderman, 49; drug dealer suspect Adam Hart, 29, on the run after escaping from police; Dean Rice, 47, wanted for kidnap and false imprisonment, and Anthony Kearney, 43, who is accused of extortion, perverting the course of justice and fraud. The full list can be found on the Crimestoppers website, with photographs of each of the wanted criminals and freephone numbers that can be called from both the UK and Spain. The list is prepared by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) and those on it are subject to European Arrest Warrants. Introduced in 2004, these drastically reduce paperwork and make extradition a matter of weeks, not years. Bill Hughes, director of Soca, has a strong message for those on the run abroad: “These criminals seem to gravitate to warmer climes and think they can sit back and relax and enjoy their money. That’s not the case. We are determined to seize their assets and bring them back to face trial, or be returned to prison, in the proper way.” Information received will be forwarded to Spanish police, who will make the actual arrests. But Soca admits that criminals are already getting the message that Spain is no longer the sunshine sanctuary it once was. They are now turning their attention to other destinations, such as Dubai, to try to evade the ever-lengthening long arm of the law.


10 November, 2008

Some 10,000 motorcyclists blocked the streets in the centre of Madrid last Saturday when they staged their 3rd National Motorbike Demonstration to back their demands for the removal of safety barriers which they claim are fatal for motorcyclists. As if to highlight their claim, a motorcyclist died after he crashed into a safety barrier just outside Madrid only hours before the demonstration started. Before setting out from the Santiago Bernabeu football stadium, the participants observed a minute’s silence for that death and the 500 motorcyclists who died on Spain’s roads in the past 12 months. Their other demands included the use of non-slip paint on the roads, a general resurfacing and the suppression of the new €1,500 motorbike purchase tax. A spokesman for Unidad Motera (Motorcyclist Union) said the latest measures adopted by the Traffic Authority, such as raising the minimum age for driving a motorbike to 16 or a tougher driving test, only made owning a bike more expensive without teaching the driver the necessary skills. Smaller demonstrations were held in other cities across the country.


10 November, 2008

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said last Saturday that he would use his hard-won invitation to attend the G-20 summit in Washington on November 20th to ensure that Spain becomes a permanent member of groups like the G-20 and the G-8. French President Nicolas Sarkozy made the PM’s attendance possible by giving him one of the two seats he has allocated to him as the current EU President and as president of an EU country. Most political observers in Spain believe outgoing US President Geiorge W Bush had used the G-20 formula, which Spain does not belong to, for the summit to punish Sr Zapatero for having withdrawn Spanish peace-keeping troops from Iraq shortly after he took power in April 2004.


10 November, 2008

One of Osama Bin Laden’s sons has been returned to Egypt after his request for political asylum in Spain was rejected by the government last week. Omar Osama Bin Laden, 27, made his claim at Madrid’s Barajas airport last Monday during a stopover on a flight from Egypt to Morocco with his British wife. Mr Bin Laden, one of the al-Qaeda leader’s 19 sons, said the the government had rejected his petition due to “insufficient evidence of danger or threat to his life””. A metals trader, who has urged his father to give up violence, argued that his pacifist beliefs put his life in the Middle East at risk. Omar Bin Laden currently lives in Cairo, with Zaina Alsabah Bin Laden, formerly named Jane Felix-Browne, whom he married in 2006. The couple said they were finding it difficult to find a country that would accept Mr Bin Laden and blamed his family name. The couple had hoped to move to Mrs Bin Ladens home in Cheshire, north-west England. But they said in April the British government had judged Mr Bin Laden’s presence in the country would not be “conducive to the public good”. It is thought the authorities were referring to comments made by Mr Bin Laden that he could not prove his father was responsible for the 2001 attacks on the US or the London bombings in 2005. Omar Bin Laden says he has not seen his father since 2000. Mrs Bin Laden, who is severely visually impaired, had said she needed access to medical treatment in the UK but refused to be apart from her husband.


10 November, 2008

The National Court has suspended the opening of mass graves in the inquiry into the fate of more than 140,000 men and women who were executed during the Civil War and the years immediately following it. The country’s top criminal court ruled by 10 votes to five to stop exhumations until it can decide whether Judge Baltasar Garzon had the competence to launch the inquiry. Judge Garzon ordered the opening of 19 mass graves last month, including the gravesite of poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Garzon named Gen Francisco Franco and more than 30 members of his regime as instigators of alleged crimes against humanity, but the National Court ruled last Friday that the “activities related to the exhumation of bodies must be suspended while this court resolves questions raised by the public prosecutor regarding the competence of the judge to make this move”. The ruling followed an appeal from the public prosecutor who has said Franco-era crimes cannot be examined because of an amnesty law passed in 1977. Campaigners condemned the court’s ruling as “brutally inhumane”. Emilio Silva, head of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, said: “There are many people who are very old who have been waiting for a long time to recover their loved ones’ bones and give them a decent burial.” The United Nations Commission on Human Rights recently asked Spain to abolish the amnesty law because it contradicted international treaties.


10 November, 2008

As the scandal over the book published to coincide with Queen Sofia’s 70th birthday died a media death last week, Royal Spanish Academy member Luis Maria Anson noted in his column in El Mundo last Friday that the author belongs to the controversial Catholic association, Opus Dei. Generally regarded as a very right wing organisation, Sr Anson suggested that in “The Queen from very close up”, journalist Pilar Urbano was in fact putting typical Opus Dei sentiments into the Queen’s mouth and contrasted it with another recent publication, “Doña Sofia, La Reina habla de su vida (The Queen talks about her life)”. According to Sr Anson, its authors, Carmen Enriquez and Emilio Oliva, have produced a much more objective book, based on conversations with the Queen that lasted about 20 hours. In response to critics of the monarchy, Sr Anson pointed out that in a recent United Nations rating of the quality of life and development of the countries belonging to it, seven constitutional monarchies were among the top ten. This number grew to 11 in the top 15. Spain was rated at number 19.


10 November, 2008

Foreign ministers of the embryonic 43-nation Mediterranean Union meeting in Marseille, France, last Tuesday, announced that Barcelona would be the new group’s headquarters. The union embraces 27 EU states and countries in the Middle East and North Africa which plan to work together in areas such as water, energy and education. French President Nicolas Sarkozy launched the union at a summit in July. Barcelona was the site of a previous EU-led Mediterranean initiative, called the Barcelona Process. Arab-Israeli tensions dogged that process, but diplomats said a compromise deal was reached last week. Despite its initial opposition, Israel finally agreed to the Arab League participating “at all levels” of the union, provided an Israeli was appointed as one of five deputy secretary generals. The secretary general has not yet been named. The union is being co-chaired by Mr Sarkozy and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mr Sarkozy has said the new grouping will help “build peace in the Mediterranean”.


10 November, 2008

The Supreme Court has sent three army officers to jail for abusing their authority during enemy capture practices when they treated the soldier selected to play the role of enemy prisoner in a “degrading and inhuman” way. The incidents took place in October 2000 on Cabron Beach in the Canary islands. Among other things, the soldier was forced to eat piping hot food while blindfolded and also had cleaning liquid thrown at him. The men had been absolved of the charges by a military court but they will now serve sentences of five, four and three months and will also have to pay an indemnity of €75,000 to the soldier. The men were only identified by the their rank and first names.


10 November, 2008

One unexpected consequence of the current economic crisis is that more teenagers are staying on at school. Until now, Spain has had one of the EU’s highest school drop-out rates but youngsters are beginning to realise that the more qualifications they have, the better the chance of finding a job. The unemployment figure for October – 2,818,026 – was the highest since April 1996 and some gloom-and-doom merchants predict it could top the four-million mark by the end of next year.


10 November, 2008

You can’t get a mortgage but you’re desperate to buy a home of your own? Well, head north to Bustarga in Leon province. It’s one of the most beautiful – and coldest -areas of the country, in a nature park close to the Las Medulas mountains. There you can pick up a real bargain – a 100 m2, three-storey stone rural dwelling dating back to 1920. Its walls and wooden beams are in tip-top condition, but there are a couple of drawbacks: it doesn’t have electricity or running water – but what else can you expect for the paltry sum of €14,500.


10 November, 2008

A loyal ally

Last week wasn’t a bad one for Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. To his great relief, Barak Obama won the US presidential elections thus removing the threat of at least another four years of frosty relations between the two countries. And France’s Nicolas Sarkozy has offered one of the two places he commands – as current European president as well as president of a G-7 – at the G-20 summit to be held in Washington on November 15th. Sr Zapatero had not been invited to the summit because Spain does not belong to the G-20 group of countries, which consists of the seven most developed countries (Spain ranks 8th), Russia, the EU as a bloc and the most important emerging economies. Ever since the summit was announced, Sr Zapatero has been lobbying all and sundry to get an invitation, and the Spanish media have attributed his absence to vindictiveness on the part of George W Bush. They claim he has never forgiven Sr Zapatero for withdrawing the Spanish troops from Iraq but it’s not quite that simple. Throughout the 2004 general election campaign, Sr Zapatero said he would withdraw the troops by the end of June that year, if the United Nations had not taken over the running of Iraq from the US. The war was not popular and the decision to send peace-keeping troops to Iraq was the biggest mistake former President Jose Maria Aznar ever made during his eight years in government. What Sr Zapatero did the day after he was officially sworn in was to announce the immediate withdrawal of the troops – a slightly different scenario from the one he promised. The Madrid train bombing, which killed 191 people and injured another 1800 or so, by Islamist radicals happened just three days before the election and most Western leaders viewed Spain’s withdrawal as a capitulation to the terrorists. Then during a visit to Algeria a few weeks later, he made matters worse by publicly urging all US allies to follow suit – a definite diplomatic no-no. Sr Zapatero’s political judgement was further questioned when his government allowed some 850,000 illegal immigrants to become legal in 2005 – thus creating an open door effect the rest of Europe dreaded. In fact, during the year following the legalisation process the influx of illegal immigrants more than quadrupled. Meanwhile, Sr Zapatero had openly backed John Kerry in the US 2004 general election – Bush was re-elected. He publicly rooted for Gerhard Schroeder in the German general election in 2005, which Angela Merkel won – and for Segolene Royal in the 2007 French general election, which Nicolas Sarkozy won. Football fans wanted him banned from attending last year’s European Cup between Spain and Germany because of his tendency to back the loser. He also alienated Tony Blair when it was leaked to the press that his closest advisers were given to referring to the UK PM as “that gilipollas (s**thead)”. While Bush can be blamed for many things, Zapatero’s poor international image is not one of them. Last week, he told a press conference that he would be a friend and loyal ally of Barak Obama, to the amusement of many political observers here. As one said – with friends like him, who needs enemies. Another asked – will he go as far as sending the troops back to Iraq? Probably not, because Obama wants to bring the US troops home within 16 months. Obama has also said he wants to establish good relations with Spain, although Zapatero was not among the world leaders he rang last Thursday. However, the next day Obama broke an eight-year-long silence and called Madrid. The sigh of relief at the PM’s official La Moncloa residence in Madrid could be heard all over the country. Hooray, we’re back in from the cold.


3 November, 2008

The Queen’s 70th birthday last Sunday was marred by controversy because of a book published last week to mark the event. The national press began to publish excerpts from La Reina Muy de Cerca (The Queen very close up) by writer Pilar Urbano last Friday and her comments on gay marriage caused a furore in the gay community. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero made a point of stressing the Queen’s “impeccable services to Spain” at a press conference in the capital of El Salvador where he, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, were attending the 18th Ibero-American Summit. Meanwhile the Royal Household issued a statement saying that “alleged affirmations” by the Queen, as recorded in the book by Sra Urbano, were “inexact”. The statement said the comments were made in private and did not exactly correspond with the Queen’s opinions. The statement continued: “The words (in the book) do not reflect the deep attitude of respect which Her Majesty the Queen has for all people, and her closeness to those who suffer, are persecuted or discriminated against.” Despite the statement, Pilar Urbano is standing by her book. She told reporters: “What the Queen said is what my book says.” She added that the interview process was “perfectly documented” and that revision of the test copies allowed the Queen and the La Zarzuela palace verify and give the green light to her declarations. According to El Pais newspaper, the book was given the go-ahead by the Queen’s secretarial staff, implying that she may not have read the book herself. Queen Sofia has lived in Spain for the past 46 years and has never committed any indiscretion in public. In a biography published in 1993, King Juan Carlos said his wife was his most trusted adviser throughout the years that they lived in the shadow of Francisco Franco and during the often tricky Transition period. Queen Sofia’s brother Constantine was the last King of Greece and she herself spent most of her childhood in Egypt and South Africa during her family’s exile from Greece during World War Two.


3 November, 2008

Barcelona writer and photographer, Alexis de Villar, has claimed that the latest Woody Allen film, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” plagiarised his novel, “Goodbye Barcelona” which was published in 1987. The writer, who made the claim on the Que Alucine! Website, added that Allan has obviously made some changes to “avoid my complaints”. The novel was one of the finalists in the Premio Planeta competition in 1987. De Villar said he will lodge his complaint “as a matter of simple dignity” and that the courts will decide shortly.


3 November, 2008

Dozens of international scientists met last month at Neiker Tecnalia, a 200-year-old potato research centre, in Vitoria-Gasteiz, in the Basque country, to discuss advances in potato farming that could be used in poorer countries. They said potatoes have a lot going for them. They are a good source of protein, starch, vitamins and nutrients like zinc and iron, and as a crop, they require less energy and water to grow than wheat, taking just three months from planting to harvest. Since they are heavy and do not transport well, they are not generally traded on world financial markets, making their price less vulnerable to speculation. They are not generally used to produce biofuels, a new use for food crops that has helped drive up grain prices. When grain prices skyrocketed, potato prices remained stable. With governments having trouble feeding the growing number of hungry poor and grain prices fluctuating wildly, food scientists are proposing a novel solution for the global food crisis: Let them eat potatoes. A decade ago, the vast majority of potatoes were grown and eaten in the developed world, mostly in Europe and the Americas. Today, China and India – neither big potato-eating countries in the past – rank first and third, respectively, in global potato production. When the United Nations announced last year that 2008 would be the Year of the Potato, few took it seriously. That was before grain prices doubled and the United Nations World Food Program announced that it needed an extra half billion dollars to buy grain. So now the potato is coming into its own. It is no longer a food fit for peasants and pigs but a serious nutritional aid and an object of scientific study.


3 November, 2008

Defence Minister Carme Chacon announced on Sunday that Spain will send a frigate and a support ship to Somalia as part of the mission the European Union will launch in January to fight piracy in the Indian Ocean. She made the announcement after landing in Jibuti early Sunday morning on her way to inspect Spain’s anti-piracy military presence in Somali waters. Somali is in chaos, countless children are starving and people are killing one another in the streets of Mogadishu, the capital, for a handful of grain. But piracy is thriving. Somali officials told reporters last week that this year, pirate profits are on track to reach a record $50 million, all of it tax free. He said: “These guys are making a killing.” More than 75 vessels have been attacked this year, including several Spanish fishing boats, far more than any other year in recent memory. In Somalia, crime is one of the few industries that pays. A former captain in Somalia’s long-defunct navy said: “All you need is three guys and a little boat, and the next day you’re millionaires.” As a result, criminals from all across the country are flocking to pirate dens along the Somali shore. It is not even clear whether Somali authorities want the piracy to stop. One pirate captain said his team usually divided up the loot this way: 20 percent for their bosses, 20 percent for future missions (to cover essentials like guns, fuel and cigarettes), 30 percent for the gunmen on the ship and 30 percent for government officials.


3 November, 2008

The government announced last week that descendants of Spaniards who left the country for fear of political persecution between 1936 and 1955 will now be able to apply for nationality before 2011. The decision will affect an estimated 500,000 children and grandchildren seeking to return. That number is believed to include 300,000 people in Argentina alone. The measure is part of Historical Memory law passed last year that aims to compensate and rehabilitate victims of the 1936-1939 Civil War. Elderly former members of the International Brigades, the collection of anti-fascists who travelled to Spain to fight Gen Franco’s forces, will also be eligible for citizenship under the new law, without giving up their original nationality as was required in the past.


3 November, 2008

Police have arrested the man who bought the mobile phone that was used to warn the authorities of the car bomb that exploded in the University of Navarra car park in Pamplona last Thursday morning. Local officials said the warning had been vague and Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba said the Basque terrorist group ETA had obviously intended to cause a blood bath. However, no-one was killed, and only 15 people were injured, even though the bomb went off near the library which was full of students at the time. It was the sixth time ETA had been targeted the University. Two days earlier, police had arrested four suspected ETA members – three of them in Pamplona. Guns and a large quantity of explosives were also seized in the raids. The Navarra region is separate from the Basque Country, but nationalists argue that it should also form part of an independent Basque homeland.


3 November, 2008

A National Court judge has absolved 16 Catalan youths charged with insulting the Crown after burning photos of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia at a protest in Barcelona earlier this year. Prosecutor Javier Zaragoza had asked for them to be fined €3,600 each but judge Jose Maria Vazquez Honrubia threw out the case, saying the youths were guilty of disorderly conduct but not of slander.