08 March 2015

Dispatches from Spain 7

by Rich Gilbert

[The continuing adventure of Rich and Sallie in Madrid, Spain, proceeds below.  Check back for Dispatches 1-6 (30 November 2014, 10 December 2014, 20 December 2014, and 14 January 2015) to catch up with the story.  As Rich mentions below, he was in the Washington, D.C., area for a few weeks in January and I got to see him briefly while we were both in the area.  We caught up a little, but most of my news from him and Sallie comes from his e-mails and the blog Sallie maintains on her own, Rambling Solo, at http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es.]

Madrid at 4 months - mas o menos‏

Madrid – February 27, 2015
Dear Friends and Family,

It has been over four months since we left Washington, D.C.  Of course, I spent nearly three weeks back for work in January, so four months more or less in Spain (over four for Sallie, a bit less for me). I thought I would catch you up.


I know the northeast of the United States is getting hammered this winter.  My friend Ron L*** had record high temperatures in Salt Lake City, but 11 inches of snow at his cabin in Nevada. Spain is a little like that.  Madrid is not Malaga on the Costa del Sol (southern coast) or Ibiza (the resort island in the Mediterranean), so it has been cold (sometimes below freezing at night, but usually not during the day). Still, we have had very little precipitation of any kind, and have at least some sun most days.  So it has been much easier than it has been back for you on the East Coast.  In northern Spain however, there are heavy snowfalls, sometimes isolating small villages, and in lower elevations very heavy rains with serious flooding.  We even had an earthquake in south central Spain this week.  (We did not feel it, but I was taking a siesta, so I might have missed it.)

Daily Life

We had a visit from Sallie’s younger son last week.  With four kids ranging from 9 to 17, it was hectic.  We made it down to Toledo for the day, but otherwise stayed in Madrid.  Sallie took that week off from her Spanish class, but has been back in class this week.  She goes to class for four hours each weekday, and usually has several hours of homework each night.  She is working very hard and is making progress, but we both still need practice speaking and listening.  With her in class, I do the laundry (no dryer, have to hang on lines on the roof) and the shopping and much of the cooking.  I also have time to go to the gym and stop by a local place for coffee every day. The proprietor there always takes her time to talk to me.  So do the guys at our favorite place, where I go to watch futbol three or four nights a week while Sallie does her homework.

Spanish Politics

This is an election year in Spain, so things are starting to heat up, much the way things are gathering steam in the United States about the 2016 election.  There are major elections in Andalucia and several other important provinces this Spring.  In September, the Catalans are holding an election.  The plan of the “independistas” who want to secede from Spain is to run a single slate in which all the parties favoring independence will be represented.  That way if they gain an absolute majority, they will view that as, in effect, a referendum.  The leader of Cataluna, Arturo Mas, would then set a date of 18 months in which to negotiate a peaceful exit from Spain.  Other parties wanted to push things more aggressively.  It is not a foregone conclusion that the separatists will win; perhaps the most popular option is to have Cataluna be a fairly autonomous state within a decentralized federal Spain, but there is no guarantee that the government would offer that.

National elections are likely to be held in October.  Right now the Popular Party, which is conservative and which heads the government now, is in deep trouble.  The corruption scandals have taken a serious toll.  The President, Mariano Rajoy, and the head of the Socialist party, which holds the second largest group of seats, exchanged very harsh words in the House of Deputies this week.  There seems little chance of a coalition government between the two parties, although they did agree on a joint antiterrorism bill recently.  The Popular Party is going to run on the improving economy in Spain, which is finally showing some sustained growth, while the Socialists are going to run on the continuing high unemployment and, more pointedly, the corruption angle despite having several members here in Madrid recently charged for corruption as well.

Of course, the wild cards here are Podemos [“We can”], the populist left wing party, and, to a lesser degree Ciudadanos [“Citizens”], a populist center party.  Both are new, and thus currently have no deputies in the legislature, but that will certainly change.  In fact, Podemos, polls well ahead of the other parties, and Pablo Iglesias, its leader could well form the next government.  Podemos has been hurt a little by the revelation that one of its co-founders, not Iglesias, took a lot of money from the Venezuelan government for some as yet unspecified work.  Ciudadanos has in the space of little more than year climbed to the fourth place in the polls.  If I were to bet, and there are betting parlors everywhere for sports, I would predict a coalition government with Podemos and the Socialists, with the leader of the party with the most votes given the chance to form the government.  But egos involved are big, and that could fall apart.  Moreover, if Ciudadanos makes a lot of progress, they could join with Podemos instead.

The corruption stories just keep on coming.  Part of this is that the investigations take a long time, so the stories linger, but there are new ones all the time.  Interestingly , the latest controversy has been that a private company with a contract from the Madrid government to update the information system for the courts has been paying judges and prosecutors for work on the project in addition to their regular salaries.  The money involved is small potatoes compared to the normal corruption case here, and no one seems to be alleging they did not do any work, but one would have expected them to work on a project to improve the courts as part of their duties, which would be the case here in the United States.  I do not think that anyone is going to jail, but it is embarrassing for the judicial branch and prosecutor, many of whom investigate corruption cases.

European Politics

As Spain is part of the European Union and the Eurozone, one cannot completely divorce the politics in Spain from what is going on in Europe.  The three major crises are, in no particular order, the Greek debt, Ukraine, and terrorism in Europe.

As you may know, a populist left-wing party, Syriza, won the national election in Greece earlier this year.  It ran on a promise to end the austerity policies imposed on Greece as part of the “rescue” from a debt crisis that exploded about the time of the worldwide recession, five years ago.  After winning the election, the new Greek government sought to renegotiate the terms of the bailout.  It was pretty flatly rejected, although the Europeans agreed to give it a six-month extension in return for more concessions.  The Germans, who have the greatest economic clout in Europe, were the force behind rejecting the Greeks, but the other European countries, including Spain, joined forces with Germany.  Part of this was Spain’s view that having worked their way out of an economic crisis, they thought Greece should have to earn its way out also.

But, here’s my take on the backstory.  Podemos is very similar to Syriza, they are both populist left wing parties, and Pablo Iglesias travelled to Greece to lend support both before and after the elections.  I am willing to bet that [President] Rajoy, who is definitely looking over his shoulder at Podemos, wanted to create a narrative that populist parties really cannot significantly change circumstances within the pervasive influence of the European economic system, and thus it would be better to trust to parties, like the Popular Party, with experience in governing and working with other European countries and institutions.  We will see how this plays out as many other European countries have rising populist parties on both the right and left, many of whom reject the assumptions which have bound the European Union to date.

El Pais, the paper I read each day, gives a fair amount of coverage to Ukraine, especially the battles and casualties, even a shocking (to me anyway) front page picture with the corpse of a Ukrainian soldier.  I sense that it is skeptical of economic sanctions stopping Russian aggression.  So far, the Europeans have been unwilling to provide arms to Ukraine government, and have persuaded the United States to hold off.  This issue is not being discussed by Spanish politicians very much, maybe because the European efforts at negotiation are being spearheaded by Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande.

Again, this is my personal take on how it may affect internal politics in Spain and elsewhere in Europe.  The annexation of the Crimea by Russia and the de facto autonomy of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine have been accomplished by Russian military force, but, as always, by competing legal claims.  For many European countries, the legal principle that internal regions cannot simply declare their independence unilaterally, with or without a referendum not sanctioned by the national government is a very real issue, with the Catalan situation in Spain likely to come to a head in the next year or two.  There have been competing economic studies, but I think it is fair to say that the economic viability of an independent Cataluna will be very affected by whether it is permitted to join the European Union and continue to use the Euro.  (I think it is precisely this set of difficulties which have dissuaded, at least for now, the new Greek government from simply defaulting on its debts and leaving the Eurozone.)  So, it is very possible that, to avoid providing Russia with a legal example of a unilateral secession with which to justify its influence in functionally separate regions in Ukraine, but also Moldova and Georgia, other European governments may decline to support an independent Cataluna, to include recognizing it and offering it membership in the European Union.  Indeed, Spain might encourage them to make their feelings known in advance of the Catalan election.  I want to be clear; I am no expert on European politics and none of these things may come about in the way I speculate, but I am learning how interrelated things are in Europe.

Terrorism, the “homegrown” variety, is an important concern throughout Europe, especially after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris and the subsequent shootings in Copenhagen.  The Popular Party and Socialist party are in basic agreement, having just passed a new bipartisan anti-terrorism bill, which includes some new terrorism crimes and the possibility of life with the possibility of parole. (Spain still has no life without parole, and no country in Europe has a death penalty.)  However, the Popular Party initially tried to move its own version of the legislation without Socialist support.  After much criticism, especially about various expansions of surveillance capabilities, some without judicial authorization, the law was scaled back somewhat.  Privacy remains an important tissue in Spain and in Europe.  Just the other day, a Spanish court threw out the results of a listening device placed in the car of a major drug dealer because the police did not get prior judicial approval.  I expect these issues to continue to be matters about which the Spanish parties disagree, much as we have these debates in the United States concerning security and the right to privacy.  

Spanish Futbol

Real Madrid continues to have a comfortable, but not insurmountable, lead in the Spanish league, with main rivals, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, having lost league matches to lower-ranked clubs in the past few weeks.  Both Barcelona and Atletico will need help to overtake Real Madrid.

All three clubs are still in the hunt for the European Champions League title.  Unlike American football, once you reach the head-to-head stage, the matches are all in a home-and-away format, with total goals the deciding factor.  The exception is the final match which is a single game played on a neutral, predetermined site.  (In the United States, Major League Soccer uses the same format.)  There are four German clubs left in the tournament, out of sixteen, 3 English clubs, and 2 French clubs, but only 1 from Italy, Switzerland, Portugal and Ukraine.  (Ironically, the Ukraine club is from the Donetsk region, but because of the war there, has to play its home games elsewhere in Ukraine.)  Real Madrid and Barcelona both won their initial matches, but Atletico lost.  Each team has another match against the same clubs.

Spain also has the King’s Cup tournament open to all clubs in Spain.  Barcelona is in the semi-finals and won its first match.  (For reasons I do not understand Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico were all placed in the same quadrant of the brackets, guaranteeing only one would make it to the semi-finals.)

Of course, soccer being soccer, what would news be like without problems off the field?  One second division club is accused of bribing rival players to win against a third club. It does not really make sense unless there were going to be further bribes to take a loss, but who knows.  More disturbingly, fans in Betis, which is in Andalucia, started an offensive chant against the former domestic partner of one of its star players accused of abusing her; they were calling her a whore and saying she deserved it.  The leagues is contemplating some punishment such as closing part of the stadium for subsequent games, but it just shows how ugly things can get.  Not just in Spain, of course, as Chelsea fans demonstrated by taunting black Metro riders in Paris and claiming they were racists and proud of it.  In Greece they have simply suspended the top two leagues altogether for fan violence.  I really love the sport, but you can see why I have avoided going to the live matches.  (We may go to see a Real Madrid match against one of the lower ranked teams from a distant location, figuring there will be few problems in a match of presumed little importance, but we will see.)

Future Plans

Our lease runs out here in Madrid in May.  We will certainly miss our neighborhood, which we have grown to love.  We will probably spend a lot of June traveling in Italy with Sallie’s oldest son, David, his wife, Heidi, who lived in Italy for many years and speaks Italian, their daughter Emily, and Heidi’s mother and her husband.  Right now, our plans are to rent a place in northern Spain for the month of July.  We are not sure where.  San Sebastien would make it easy to go to Pamplona and to visit France.  Galicia or Asturias have more striking scenery and it would be easier to visit Portugal [from Galicia or Asturias than from San Sebastien].  We are currently thinking of going north to Germany, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Brussels after that.  Greece would be later in the trip, perhaps even at the end.

It was good to see so many of you while I was in Washington, but I am trying to arrange not to have to come back for work or medical appointments until October.  I hope some of you can still arrange to visit us.  Do not forget to check out Sallie’s blog, Rambling Solo, http://ramblingsolo.blogspot.com.es, for a different take on our adventures, plus pictures!


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