Crossing the Straits

Last April, Spain’s socialist party, the PSOE, emerged as the clear winners in the general elections, with an increased vote and a 57-seat lead over their historic rivals, the conservative Partido Popular. The PSOE did not win an outright majority, however, leaving party leader and acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez with the task of building a coalition. This is no simple task in Spain’s increasingly complex electoral landscape and nearly four months on, attempts to form a government are still foundering: in “Crónica de un desastre en directo“, El País journalist Carlos Cué charts the failure of last-minute attempts to rescue negotiations between the PSOE and left-wing party Unidas Podemos, the obvious candidates for an alliance, before a key vote on 25 July.

On 7 August, Pedro Sánchez had to give an update report to King Felipe, who has been urging politicians to find a way of breaking the stalemate. Lucía Bohorquez of El País reported on the mixed messages that emerged from this meeting (“Sánchez insiste en el pacto de legislatura pese a la “desconfianza” con Iglesias“); on the one hand, Sánchez argued that some form of agreement with Unidas Podemos was still possible, but at the same time he laid the blame for the failure of negotiations firmly at their feet, drawing an angry response from UP spokesman Pedro Echenique. Bohorquez concludes that a further election in the autumn is looking increasingly likely.

An opinion piece by Marisa Cruz in El Mundo ends up in pretty much the same place, arguing that Sánchez has deliberately sabotaged the deal which he is, on the surface, still seeking; in “Pedro Sánchez crea un “relato” perfecto para torpedear el pacto con Pablo Iglesias“, she points out that you don’t make friends of people by trading insults with them, and argues that Sánchez’ real strategy is focused on the coming, inevitable, election. She is particularly scathing about his call for parties on the centre-right spectrum in Spain to refrain from blocking the formation of a new government by abstaining in the relevant parliamentary votes; why, she asks, should the Partido Popular cooperate in the creation of a government which is pledged to sweep away key elements of the changes that the PP introduced under Mariano Rajoy, even if new leader Pablo Casado is trying to distance himself from some of Rajoy’s legacy.

Lucía Bohorquez points to the impact that the ongoing uncertainty is having, not least on the future funding position of Spain’s regional governments. It’s a relief, in the middle of the recriminations, to find out about something which does seem to be working: Operación Paso del Estrecho, a scheme set up to help immigrants and their families travelling from all over Europe to visit relatives in North Africa for the summer. This year the scheme is expected to perform the logistical miracle of smoothly transporting more than three million people to and from Tangiers, Ceuta, and other ports in Morocco and Algeria. In “De inmigrante ilegal a turista europea, la ida y vuelta de Sumnia al Estrecho“, Jesús Cañas catches up with Sumnia Meduen, her husband Said and twelve-year old daughter Mariam, on their way from Madrid to visit family in Casablanca on the busiest day of the scheme. Emergency helpers are on hand for those that need them but Mariam is more interested in the ice-cream van.

 

Who are you going to vote for?

On 28 April Spain is due to hold another general election, triggered by the current government’s failure to steer its budget through the Spanish Cortes. But the country’s electoral landscape is becoming increasingly difficult to read as new groups challenge the two parties that have dominated Spanish politics for decades, the PSOE on the left and the Partido Popular on the right.

Back in December, Javier Martín-Arroyo of El País was interviewing politicians, commentators and academics in an effort to understand the shock results of elections for the autonomous government of Andalusia, which saw the socialist PSOE lose its control of the region for the first time in 36 years, and new far-right party Vox burst onto the stage under its leader Santiago Abascal (¿Por qué ganó la derecha en Andalucía?), an outcome missed by all the political polls before the vote. Political scientist Jean Baptiste Harguindeguy warned against trying to reduce what happened to a single cause, talking instead about the interaction between a range of factors; voter alienation after a long period of single-party rule, historically low turnout, especially among voters on the left, and a PSOE-left block campaign which never really got off the ground, against an energetic and aggressive Vox, which was able to exploit social media platforms to tap into fears about immigration, globalism and austerity. Local PSOE activist Juan Chacón pointed to infighting that fatally undermined party morale in the run-up to the vote and was scathing about Vox’s manipulation of anti-Gibraltar sentiment to win votes.

Javier Martín-Arroyo said he was basing his article on expert interviews and anecdotal evidence in anticipation of statistical research then in the pipeline. In February this year, the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas published its study of the elections, covered by El País in Siete claves de Vox, según el CIS. Based on individual voter analysis, the study paints a picture of Vox supporters who are mostly (but by no means entirely) male, relatively well-off and solidly conservative; 50% previously voted for the Partido Popular, and 21% for its centre-right rival Cuidadanos, while 10% said they had abstained in the 2016 general elections and a mere 9% were previously left-wing party supporters.

In Rivera apuesta todo a vencer a Casado tras el no al PSOE, Elsa García de Blas describes how Ciudadanos, under the leadership of Albert Rivera, is manoeuvering to wrest domination of the centre right in Spain from the Partido Popular, now led by Pablo Casado; in February Rivera publicly ruled out any form of coalition with the PSOE, with approaches to the Catalan crisis a key issue. The article stresses, however, that the party’s stance against Catalan independence goes beyond political tactics and carries huge emotional significance for Rivera.

And last week, Patricia Gosálves went to take the mood in the heartlands of the Partido Popular, meeting up with a group of ladies who lunch, and their parish priest, in one of the wealthiest (and more elderly) quarters of Madrid (Fabada con seis señoras bien: “Tenemos el WhatsApp enloquecido con Vox”). Over Asturian bean stew and a few bottles of wine, she talked to her interviewees about the state of the nation (terrible), taxes (way too high), breakaway movements (they hung out the flags), the Pope (a bit of a populist) and many other subjects, including euthanasia, where opinion was divided. On the elections, although Vox was making a lot of waves among their friends and their faith had been shaken by corruption scandals, they said they would stick with the PP. Or maybe not – one of the findings of the CIS study was reluctance to admit voting for Vox.

 

 

Follow the money trail

This month I have been trying to learn a bit more about Argentina through the stories running in the press there.

On 22 August, El Clarín was relating the anguish of the father of one of three passengers who died when a bus swerved off the road and crashed into a lagoon (Tragedia en Mar Chiquito). Musician Claudio Fazio, who had been tracking the progress of the bus using a mobile app, turned up at the scene unaware of the accident only to find emergency services desperately working on the site; among the debris later recovered was his teenage son’s beloved skateboard.

In the opinion pages on the same day, law professor Andrés Gil Domínguez was angrily denouncing the senators who voted out draft legislation which would have legalized abortions up to the fourteenth week of pregnancy (Presente y futuro de la interrupción voluntaria del embarazo). Domínguez argues that the law on this area is now in a state of chaos as local and regional authorities have piled in with their own rules, in contravention of the constitution; he believes, however, that there has been a sea change in attitudes among women which cannot now be reversed and will inevitably lead to reform.

But the lead on 23 August was the latest twist in a major story about corruption: the so-called notebooks scandal involving an alleged bribery ring at high levels of former President Cristina Kirchner’s government. In  Claudio Bonadio tiene la autorización del Congreso y emite las órdenes de allanamiento a Cristina Kirchner, the paper reports on a successful application by the judge leading the investigation on the case to search properties belonging to Cristina Kirchner, now an opposition senator; the aim, according to the paper, was to check the credibility of claims by witnesses that they were the collection points for suitcases full of money from construction and energy industry contractors.

A few days earlier, news website LaPolíticaOnline was asking what impact the scandal was having on the political landscape of Argentina and in particular on President Macri, fighting to preserve popular support in the face of the current economic crisis; the answer seemed to be surprisingly little. According to a private opinion poll seen by the site, Kirchner’s ratings have actually improved since the scandal broke, while Macri’s have done little more than stabilise (Cuadernos: según Poliarquía, Cristina subió siete puntos desde que estalló el escándalo). The survey found that while the affair may be contributing to a general disillusionment with politics and politicians, corruption is a second-order issue for many voters in Argentina, who are preoccupied by the state of economy. The article argues caution however: despite Kirchner’s relatively positive standing at the moment, on the current showing it is still extremely unlikely, they think, that this would translate into success for her in the 2019 Presidential elections.

Don’t panic

Spain’s new government is starting to formulate its economic policy and on 20 July, El Mundo reported on a key element: the decision to raise the state spending cap for 2019 by 4.4%, the biggest increase for five years, and to soften deficit reduction targets  (El Gobierno eleva el gasto del Estado un 4,4% hasta llegar a 125.064 millones, la mayor subida desde 2014). Treasury minister María Jesús Montero is quoted as arguing that the rise will allow the government more headroom to promote growth and increase social spending, and will comply with Eurozone budget control rules. The article predicts, however, that new ministers will have to tread carefully to get the new approach through the Spanish parliament, given that the upper house is still controlled by the conservative Partido Popular, while on the left the Podemos party has been calling for a much higher spending increase.

The government’s approach reflects its more upbeat assessment of Spain’s economic prospects: according to the article, economy minister Nadia Calviño is predicting that unemployment will fall to 13.4% by the end of 2019, and to 10.7% by 2021.

Some of this optimism is on view in a piece in ABC on 13 July about business diversification and innovation in the Spanish banking sector (Los «nuevos» negocios de la banca: innovación tecnológica sin vajillas ni baterías de regalo). Despite the hype over the opening of a mobile phone shop in Mallorca by an offshoot of CaixaBank, journalist Carlos Manso Chicote argues that the real story is elsewhere as the big players like CaixaBank, Bankia, BBVA and Santander exploit mobile, digital and other technology to cut costs and develop niche markets; the challenge has been how to protect and extend their profits in the face of extended low interest rates. Experts interviewed for the article argue that the banks have learnt the lesson of the disastrous property boom and are now taking a much more balanced approach. Whatever CaixaBank has been doing seems to be working: La Vanguardia reported at the end of July that its half-year profits had jumped by 54% to €1.298 bn (CaixaBank gana 1.298 millones en el primer semestre, un 54% más).

And in El País, economist Luis Garicano has been looking at the potential impact of AI on jobs  (¿Cómo afectará la inteligencia artificial al nivel de empleo?). Recent research in the US, he argues, points to the positive lessons that we can draw from the past, especially the industrial revolution, where mechanization in agriculture, the textile industry and other sectors produced massive improvements in productivity, wealth and new economic activity which ultimately far outweighed the short-term displacement of jobs. The main risk, he thinks, is from new technology which is just enough of an improvement to knock out human jobs without generating enough of a boost to the broader economy to compensate. His conclusion: we can be positive about the future but need to be prepared for a period of rapid change and ensure that people can acquire new skills.

 

A Prime Minister falls …

At the beginning of June Mariano Rajoy was forced to step down as Spanish Prime Minister after a dramatic week in which a long-running corruption scandal involving the conservative Partido Popular finally claimed him as a political victim.

How did this happen? An article in El País on 9 May highlights how the Spanish political landscape is shifting, with support ebbing away from the two mainstays of the old bipartisan system, the Partido Popular on the right and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español on the left. In “El bipartidismo desciende hasta los peores resultados de su historia” the paper reported on a recent poll of voter intentions which put the joint standing of the two parties at a historic low of 46%. The main loser at that point was the PP, suffering the fallout from the continued crisis in Catalonia and a scandal over a Masters degree of dubious standing handed out to a prominent PP politician in Madrid, but the poll also signalled declining support for the PSOE and a lack of public confidence both in Mariano Rajoy and in Pedro Sánchez, whose honeymoon period after his own dramatic re-establishment as leader of the PSOE was, the paper concluded, definitely over. The PSOE’s rival on the left, Unidos Podemos, was sticking at around 19-20% of the electorate; the real winner from the poll was Ciudadanos who had risen sharply in a mirror image of the PP’s decline and now stood slightly ahead of the PSOE.

The same edition reported on the latest twists in the Gürtel scandal: a final ruling from Spain’s supreme court upholding the verdicts on a number of businessmen and PP officials in Valencia, found guilty of corruption over the allocation of regional government contracts (“El Supremo confirma la primera sentencia de la red Gürtel y avala la prueba clave”).

Cut forward to 31 May and La Vanguardia was reporting on Rajoy’s last day in office, following a week that started in triumph for the Prime Minister as he managed to negotiate support from the Basque Nationalist Party the PNV for his budget, but quickly turned to crisis when the verdict of another major trial in the Gürtel series was handed down (“De la euforia a la caída: los ocho días que tumbaron a Rajoy“). Critically, this time the case, which saw former PP Treasurer Luís Bárcenas sentenced to 33 years in prison, directly impinged on Rajoy as the trial judges cast doubt on the credibility of the evidence he had given to the court as a witness. It was the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, who pressed Pedro Sánchez to bring a no-confidence motion although the paper argues that Rajoy’s fate was really sealed by the less than wholehearted support he got from Ciudadanos, who called for new elections. As his political enemies circled, the coup de grace came from the PNV who decided that, this time, they would cast their vote against him.

In a surprisingly sympathetic piece, El País reported that the deeply private politician reacted by withdrawing from public view for a few days, closeted with his family and a few close advisers before announcing his decision to step down from the leadership of the PP, and politics, at an emotional executive meeting of the party (“El secreto mejor guardado de Rajoy“).

He won’t pick up the phone

Boris Johnson’s trip to Chile, Argentina and Peru hit the UK headlines at the end of May, and I was curious to see what the press there would make of his visit.

El Mercurio, one of Chile’s main dailies, carried an article written by the Foreign Secretary calling for the current trade terms between the UK and Chile to be rolled over post-Brexit, but this left one Twitter commentator puzzled (” They were part of the EU!!! Who understands them”). The main focus for many journalists was Johnson’s visit to a Falklands war memorial where he laid a wreath in honour of the Argentinian soldiers who died in the 1982 campaign. In Argentinian paper La Nación , journalist Alan Soria Guadelupe reported that Johnson’s visit to the memorial, accompanied by his opposite number Jorge Faurie, was a first for a British foreign minister on Argentinian territory and reflected a growing closeness in relations between the two governments (“Inédito homenaje británico a los caídos en Malvinas“).

In Chile, a leader in El Mercurio drew a link to another issue facing South American leaders – how to respond to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. The article “Chile Frente a Maduro” condemns US threats of military action but calls on the US and EU to join in diplomatic efforts to put pressure on the Maduro regime. The article argues that Britain could use its links with Caribbean members of the Commonwealth, many of whom still support Maduro, as part of this campaign, and suggested that this issue that should be on the agenda for Johnson’s meetings with Chilean ministers.

There were issues closer to home for many Chilean journalists over this period. Online monthly periodical El Ciudadano reported on the anger and frustration of one Chilean priest at the apparent inability of bishops, including his own, to face up to the child abuse scandal that has been rocking the catholic church in the country (“En Linares hay un chiquillo abusado por un cura y el obispo de allá no le contesta el teléfono“).

A bucket of cold water

Today I’ve been looking at an Argentinian newspaper, El Clarín, to check out their take on events in Latin America.

This rightish paper leads with an article on President Mauricio Macri’s speech to the closing session of last week’s Summit of the Americas in Peru (Mauricio Macri advirtió que la Argentina desconocerá las elecciones en Venezuela). Changed at the last minute to reflect events in Syria (news of which hit the heads of state assembled for an official dinner “like a bucket of cold water”), Macri’s speech denounced the use of chemical weapons in Syria before getting to the main point, an attack on forthcoming elections in Venezuela, which Argentina is refusing to accept as legitimate, and an appeal to the other countries of the region to put joint pressure on the Venezuelan Government to reform. A big ask, according to the writer, Santiago Fioriti, who points to opposition in Bolivia and elsewhere.

For Fioriti, and for some readers who left comments, what’s really interesting about the speech is what the President didn’t say: he refrained from commenting directly on the US missile attack on Syria, instead calling for international cooperation to avoid escalating the crisis, and was also conspicuously silent on the storm of corruption scandals dominating politics across the region, including in Peru itself, where President Pablo Kuczynski was forced out of office only weeks previously when videos emerged of attempts to buy off legislators ahead of a vote on his impeachment. Fioriti thinks there were hits and misses for Macri at the Summit: he had productive and high-profile discussions with some other leaders, including Canadian President Trudeau, but a one-to-one meeting with Donald Trump was of course cancelled and a hastily-arranged replacement session with Mike Pence was dropped at short notice.

Back home, commentator Julio Blanck talks about the challenge that much worse than expected inflation figures for March this year are throwing up for President Macri (La inflación pone en jaque a la política), with a boost to his political opponents and internal rumblings among his supporters. Blanck argues that the inflation figures have to be seen in the context of a fall in the cost of living since 2016, but admits that they have overshadowed other more positive news on the economy, where there has been a growth in activity, public spending and employment and a decline in poverty. The problem, he points out, is that inflation hits hardest at the middle and lower middle classes who constitute Macri’s voter base. Macri has tried to avoid hardline austerity policies with their consequent social costs, but public confidence in his ability to control inflation is falling, according to recent polls.

The paper also picks up on heated exchanges in a city council meeting (El insólito cruce de una concejal macrista con opositores por su maternidad), where the female chair and mother of a six-month old baby angrily rebutted criticism that she should have taken maternity leave, telling her accusers that it was not available to councillors, and should be; she had had to work, she pointed out, right up to the last week of her pregnancy. Natalín Faravelli later posted a picture of herself breastfeeding her baby in the chamber, with an appeal for more respect and understanding for the problems that female politicians have to overcome. The political world of Argentina is complicated but some issues are familiar.

It makes me angry

El Mundo is a broadly centre-right paper, El País broadly centre-left, both based in Madrid, and I’ve been looking at their Spanish news coverage today to compare how they tackle the big stories of the day. The problem is, they’ve been leading on different ones.

The headline article in El Mundo is a report that Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, along with some other Catalan politicians, will be boycotting an official reception for King Felipe at the World Mobile Congress, in protest at the violence meted out by police and security forces to voters in last October’s Catalan independence referendum, and the “complete lack of empathy” which she said was shown by the King in his televised address shortly afterwards (Colau no recibirá al Rey con motivo de Mobile en Barcelona). The report also highlights calls by pro-independence groups for Catalan citizens to hoot their horns and bang saucepan lids in protest at the King’s visit.

The paper was also running a story about demands from the Basque police for restoration of their right to use rubber bullets, following the recent death of a policeman in violent clashes with football hooligans (Los ertzainas exigen al Gobierno vasco volver a las pelotas de goma: “No podemos entrar en el cuerpo a cuerpo”). Then I got sidetracked onto a story about Queen Letizia and speculation that she has had some kind of cheek augmentation injections to her face (El último y evidente retoque estético de la Reina Letizia).

In El País, my eye was caught by the latest instalment in a long-running story – the court appearance of Juana Rivas from Granada, on trial for taking her children back to Spain without the consent of her Italian partner who, she says, subjected both her and her children to numerous instances of abuse during their life together (Juana Rivas acusa a su expareja de hacerle pasar “momentos aterradores” a ella ya a sus hijos). If found guilty, she could face a prison sentence of five years for child abduction, plus loss of parental access rights.

The lead in El País, however, is another story about Catalonia, this one based around publication of a survey by the CIS, an official research and polling organisation, that shows that for the first time since 2012, public opinion in Catalonia seems to be swinging behind autonomy rather than independence as the preferred option for the future (La opción autonomista se impone por primera vez desde el inicio del “procés”). Not a huge lead (36% in favour of autonomy as opposed to 32% for independence), but significant nonetheless, according to the paper. The same survey indicated that over 40% of people in the region identified as both Spanish and Catalan. Asked what feelings they associated with references to the independence referendum and the declaration of independence that followed, most people ticked the box that said “anger”.

 

Changing times

I have been doing some practice translations of articles over the last few months to prepare for my Dip Trans exams and there are a few pieces that have really stuck in my mind …

… Jordi Amat in La Vanguardia in December, calling for a new middle way in Catalan politics (Gobierno de transición). He argues that parties across the spectrum need to rediscover the art of politics by negotiation and compromise, but underlines just how hard it will be to pull this off in an environment which, while calmer on the surface, is still deeply polarized: Catalonia, he says, has undergone a profound change and everyone needs to recognise the implications, even though that will involve swallowing some very unpalatable truths …

… a report in El País in November reporting on a ground-breaking new trade agreement between Chile and Argentina (Argentina y Chile firman el más ambicioso acuerdo comercial en 20 años). The journalist Federico Rivas Molina sees this as part of broader progress towards a free trade zone in Latin America, long an aspiration but held back by political differences; other reports draw the link to concerns about US protectionism under Trump. The Argentinian foreign minister, Jorge Faurie, is quoted as comparing the agreement to the historic crossing of the Andes by the liberation army of General San Martín in 1817, an iconic event in South American history …

… and a wonderful, allusive and very difficult article in El País Internacional by Mexican writer Jorge Hernandez (Al filo del Agua).  Published on 30 December, it is a reflection on the approaching new year which takes in some of the key transitional moments in Mexican history, takes a swipe at the current political establishment and presidential candidates for their failure to address the epidemic of violence in the country, and concludes with the hope that real change may be, just about, possible.

This is who we are

The news from Catalonia is so depressing that I have been looking for other topics to cover, but it’s not easy: the latest developments are still dominating the papers with very little evidence, at least on the surface, of the two sides coming any closer.

For a bit of relief I have been looking at the coverage of Latin America in El País, where I found an article on a recently released documentary about Bolivian rapper Abraham Bojórquez, who in his short life pioneered a unique style of Andean and Aymara hip hop and managed to make a successful musical career despite a childhood of terrible poverty  (“Ukamau y ké”, un retorno a la amistad, al cambio social y las raíces del hip hop andino). The documentary is a tribute by Ecuadorean film-maker Andrés Ramírez, a close friend of Bojórquez who wanted to lay some ghosts to rest; he was unable to attend the funeral after the singer died in a tragic accident aged only 27 in 2009. The film, which has taken five years to make, draws on recordings of performances and interviews with Bojórquez, whose work celebrated the language and music of his Aymara heritage and reflected his passionate commitment to social change.

Another story based abroad: the strange tale of the bundles of €500 notes stuffed down the toilets and bins of a string of up-market eateries and one of the most exclusive bank branches in Geneva, covered in the “Crónica” section of El Mundo (Los fajos de “bin laden” de las tres madrileñas arrojados en váteres de Ginebra). But there is a connection to Spain, as the title makes clear – the incidents have been traced to three well dressed, middle-aged Spanish women who flew in to Geneva from Madrid, emptied out their safe box at the bank and then headed for the loos. The article has fun describing the opulent venues involved and their well-heeled customers, especially the UBS branch where the story begins (it specialises in wealth management for clients worth €2 million and above, and boasts a Frank Gehry-designed glass cloud sculpture hanging from the ceiling).

The big question hanging over the article is unanswered, however. Although the Swiss financial police are investigating for a possible connection to money-laundering,  tax evasion or other criminal activity, nobody has yet worked out why such huge amounts of money were thrown away in such a spectacular way. The article speculates that some kind of family dispute or personal vendetta might be involved but so far the identity of the women involved has not been disclosed (it is known to the police, though, as the women have paid damages to the businesses whose toilets they blocked, via a lawyer who approached the police on their behalf). Readers who left comments on the story have their own theories.