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.
This week’s news in Spain has been dominated, of course, by the Catalan crisis and the fallout from the disputed referendum on Sunday, and I have been trying to get a feel for how opinions are shaping up inside and outside Catalonia.
In Wednesday’s El País, Manuel Jabois talks about the emotional disconnect between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. He argues that Catalonia has felt for a long time like a different country, from which the Spanish state has been tacitly withdrawing since the end of the Franco era (Lo empatado, lo perdido). This conception of Catalonia has been disastrously underscored by the images beamed around the world of Spanish security forces arriving in Barcelona to enforce the Government’s prohibition on the referendum, looking, as he says, like an invasion force. The result, for him, is a situation in which the pro-independence narrative has gained the day in Catalonia, drowning out the voices of the half of the population who want to stay part of Spain. He blames the failure of politics but offers no solutions.
On the same day Marius Carol, the editor of La Vanguardia in Barcelona, hit a more optimistic note, buoyed by relief that a day of protests and strikes against the central government’s actions had been largely peaceful despite the tense atmosphere and a toxic social media environment (La tolerancia como gimnasia). Arguing the need for tolerance and mutual respect, he concludes that Catalonia is divided but not irreversibly, and that sooner or later, people will have to start mending the breaks.
Not much of that in sight in an article in ABC which lays into the chief of the Catalan police, Josep Lluís Trapero, who is being investigated by Spanish prosecutors over his role in the run-up to the referendum (Un ególatro en su círculo vicioso). But today’s edition of El País covers demonstrations in Catalonia and elsewhere in Spain calling on the opposing sides to step back and start talking to each other. In the words of one placard, less testosterone and more talk (“¿Hay alguien ahí?” Los mejores carteles de las manifestaciones por el diálogo entre España y Cataluña).
There’s been a lot of coverage in the UK over events in Catalonia and I wanted to see how Spanish newspapers were reporting the latest developments. Not surprisingly, the Spanish Government’s moves to prevent the disputed independence referendum, and the counter-reaction, have dominated the news in Spain.
El Mundo’s lead on Friday was an article reporting that Spanish prosecutors are considering sedition charges against the organizers of demonstrations called to block local police and Guardia Civil officers from accessing Catalan Government buildings (La Fiscalía de la Audiencia Nacional denuncia por sedición los disturbios de Barcelona). During the disturbances, Guardia Civil vehicles were attacked and protestors blocked local roads in order to prevent detainees being taken away. The article points out that the crime of sedition carries penalties of between eight or ten years in prison, or more if the perpetrators are deemed to be in a position of authority. Elsewhere in the paper there is anger at reports that Catalan schoolchildren have been encouraged to take part in demonstrations by their teachers.
There are lighter elements though – the paper reports on a video made by one of the policemen brought into Barcelona by the Government for counter-Referendum operations, who was less than impressed with the accommodation provided for him, a tiny cabin he will be sharing with three colleagues for two weeks (“Vaya zulito bueno”, policías del operativo por el 1-O denuncian las condiciones de sus alojamientos). To add insult to injury, one of the ferries the police are sleeping on is painted with massive pictures of Tweety Pie and Daffy Duck from the Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes, a fact that has not gone unnoticed on social media.
A couple of days later, La Vanguardia was leading on reports that a senior officer, but not the most senior officer, of the Catalan police was attending a ccordination meeting with Guardia Civil and national police chiefs, in an article which highlights the political minefield the Mossos d’Esquadra are currently navigating and the unease which exists within the force (Los Mossos envían a su número tres a la primera reunión de coordinación contra el 1-O). The officer delegated to attend was reportedly due to hand over a legal report commissioned by the Catalan Government arguing that the Mossos cannot work under the command of the central Spanish authorities. And in Llega Octubre, an opinion piece which illustrates hardening attitudes in the rest of Spain, Enric Juliana gives a round-up of a pretty awful week in which Spain only narrowly avoided the spectacle of a full scale riot when far-right protestors surrounded a conference hosted in Saragossa by the left-wing Podemos party, which was debating compromise solutions to the Catalan crisis.
El País provides very good coverage of Latin American (and North American) issues, and this week I’ve been following some of the stories that have appeared in the international section.
In La brecha salarial separa a México y Canadá en la renegociación del TLC, Ignacio Fariza reports on attempts by Canada and Mexico to forge a common front in negotiations with the US on a revised NAFTA framework. Both countries need to face down the threat of a resurgent US protectionism, but the huge gap in labour market conditions between Mexico and North America is a problem for the Canadians, and trade union leader Terry Dias, who is in Mexico as an observer and is reputed to have the ear of Justin Trudeau, has been pressing to get it on the agenda for the talks.
This is doggedly opposed by the Mexican government and business organisations, but some Mexican experts think the Canadians may have a point. As the article highlights, the country has achieved a major expansion of its industrial base over the past twenty-five years, in the face of stiff international competition, but at the cost of very low and stagnating wages for its workforce, who earn a fraction of what their North American counterparts get, and relatively poor productivity.
Negotiations between all three sides are set to start in earnest in a couple of weeks and this issue is likely to be a sticking point, alongside country of origin rules, intellectual property rights and dispute resolution mechanisms.
Journalist Ramiro Barreiro has been celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the Garrahan children’s hospital in Buenos Aires as an example of what Argentina can achieve at its best (El hospital de niños Garrahan, un ejemplo de la Argentina que funciona). The hospital treats more than 600,000 patients a year, many of them from outside the country, carrying out at least one organ transplant a week and twenty-two operations a day. Despite constant wrangling over funding, it has become a highly respected public hospital and centre for specialist paediatric surgery training. Director Carlos Kambourian argues that it’s not all about high-tech medicine, however; they try to provide patients, some of whom are there for very long periods, with a stimulating environment, giving them opportunities for music and art therapy alongside their treatment. Former patients have gone on to achieve great sporting and other success and one eleven-year old has set up his own Cumbia band.
This article has given me an excuse to listen to Cumbia music on YouTube.
Today I’ve been looking at a different newspaper, La Vanguardia, which is based in Barcelona and covers both Catalan and Spanish news from a centrist perspective (it has good international coverage too, with articles and blogs from international correspondents covering everywhere from Korea to Shetland).
As the scheduled but disputed Catalan independence referendum comes ever closer, La Vanguardia includes an analysis of the draft legislation that pro-independence parties hope will govern the early stages of the new state if it does break away (La ley de desconexión catalana, en 19 preguntas y respuestas). The proposed new law sets out, among other things, who should have the right to Catalan citizenship (any Spanish citizen who has been living in Catalonia since December 2016, anyone not now resident but who has lived there for at least five years at some stage in the past, anyone born there and any child of Catalan parents). It also lays down an impressively detailed process for the formulation of a Catalonian constitution, starting with six months of work by representatives on proposals and culminating in another public referendum. Helpful, but as the author, journalist Jaume Pi admits, many of the really big questions around independence, including the issue of EU membership, would be for negotiation not legislation.
Today’s issue also gave the latest instalment of another story that has been getting a lot of coverage in the Spanish press – the fight by Juana Rivas to win custody of her two younger children from her Italian ex-partner, who was convicted of abuse against her in 2009. Rivas, who is accused of absconding with the two children, aged three and eleven, has been released on bail but yesterday had to comply with an order to hand them over to their father (Juana Rivas entrega a sus dos hijos a la Guardia Civil).
Finally, someone on the paper is a dog lover. The article Rescatado con vida a un perro que cayó por un acantilado desde 30 metros de altura is about a dog that had to be rescued by firemen after a thirty-metre fall off a cliff near Cadiz (the dog is doing well), while El abandono de un cachorro desnutrido al que arrancaron el chip indentificativo publicises the Guardia Civil’s appeal for help in identifying the owners of an abandoned puppy that was found in Almería, sick, starving, dehydrated and minus its chip. The puppy was taken to an animal rescue centre which is now looking for a new home for him.
I picked up coverage of the terrorist attacks on Sunday, when some of the shock of events on Thursday had started to be replaced by other emotions, and reports of the ongoing police investigation, eyewitness accounts and emerging information about the victims were accompanied by a lot of articles trying to piece together the motivation for the attacks and their likely impact.
High on ABC’s front page was a story about the reactions of relatives, friends and neighbours of the men identified as the perpetrators of the attacks, talking to reporters at a gathering organised in their home town of Ripoll to express solidarity with the victims (La madre del terrorista huido: “Creemos que ha habido una cabeza más grande que les ha lavado”) . Speaking through a relative, the mother of Younes Abouyaaqoub, suspected of driving the van used in the attack in Las Ramblas, condemned the attacks and called on her son to give himself up to the police. She believes he and the rest of the group were brainwashed. Others at the meeting expressed their shock at the terrible actions of a group of boys they had seen as totally normal; for some their world has fallen apart. The paper’s reporting shows some more familiar concerns starting to show through the narrative as well; there is indignation about a politician interviewed on Friday who referred to some victims as Catalans and others as Spanish (El conseller catalán de Interior distingue entre víctimas españolas y catalanas).
El Mundo includes a piece by expert on terrorism Pedro de Baños, trying to find answers to the questions of why us and why now (La mutación del terror salafista). He argues that the attacks have to be seen in the context of recent history in Syria and Iraq and the emergence of IS/Daesh from the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s army and intelligence services, amid the confusion of the Arab Spring. While many Islamic terrorist attacks in Europe can be ascribed to the backlash against the countries including the UK and France who had participated in armed intervention against Daesh, the attack in Spain owes more to the symbolic importance of Spain in IS ideology and reflects the group’s shifting strategies; rather than trying to get agents across borders, now too difficult, the aim is to instigate action by disaffected European Muslims. The piece highlights the success of IS in capitalising on the cultural dislocation often experienced by second and third-generation immigrants and the association between economic and social marginalization, petty crime and radicalisation; it also points to some more specific issues affecting Spain’s large Moroccan community including the impact of Spain’s continued presence in its North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. The piece emphasises the need to guard against the backlash; the author concludes that “every hate message on social media is a small victory for the terrorists”.
Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa picks up on some of the same themes in El País but explicitly rejects the argument that discrimination and deprivation are fostering terrorism, instead placing the blame squarely on a form of fanaticism which, like its historical predecessors, deprives followers of their ability to empathise with those outside the group or to tolerate differences (Sangre derramada: Los fanáticos nunca van a ganar la guerra) . This is an angry piece redeemed, for me, by Vargas Llosa’s funny and affectionate stories of the time he spent living in Barcelona, at a point when, he points out, the city was well ahead of the rest of Spain in throwing off the shackles of Francoism. He finishes with a warm tribute to Barcelona as a meeting place of different races, cultures, languages and ideas. Hear, hear.
This week I have been following coverage of the worsening crisis in Venezuela and its impact on other South American countries. El País has been reporting on the dilemma facing left-leaning politicians in Latin America who are under pressure to define their position on Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Mexican presidential contender Andrés Manuel López Obrador, for example, has resisted calls for direct condemnation of the Venezuelan government but is arguing for a dialogue supported by the Pope.
The big story in the last few days, however, has been Donald Trump’s apparent threat of military intervention, which has produced almost universal opposition in the region. The paper reports that Trump’s initiative has brought together both pro and anti-Maduro administrations (Las Potencias de América Latina rechazan una intervención militar en Venezuela) in a determined if in some cases diplomatically worded rebuff. The message may be getting through; at a meeting with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos on the first leg of a tour of Latin American nations, the US vice-president yesterday notably toned down the rhetoric (Mike Pence se distancia de Trump sobre una intervención militar en Venezuela). Santos reportedly emphasized that armed intervention was not an option; Latin American countries have been working on a range of alternative approaches announced in Lima on 8 August.
Meanwhile, in response to a highly critical report published by the UN on human rights abuses in Venezuela, journalist Maolis Castro gives the accounts of four victims of police beatings (Las voces de la tortura en Venezuela), including one man who lost an eye; other victims alleged sexual abuse, and threats of rape and “disappearance”.
It’s summer and although political battles, the constitutional crisis over Catalan independence and corruption scandals are still there in the background, the lead in El País yesterday went to other stories, including the rising backlash against tourism, or at least unrestricted tourism, and the impact it is having in some parts of Spain.
Alongside reports of protests and local authority action to regulate the industry (Grupos radicales actúan contra el turismo en Baleares y Valencia), journalist Thiago Ferrer Morini writes about the long term challenges facing Spain’s tourist industry. Tourism generates over 11% of national GDP at a time when economic recovery is still relatively fragile, but this has come at a considerable social and environmental cost, and the industry is now seeking ways of increasing tourist spend rather than numbers (¿Qué hacer con la primera industria de España?).
My eye was also caught by an interview with the widow of campaigner and MS sufferer Luís de Marcos (“Han hecho sufrir a Luís más de la cuenta”). Asun Gómez-Bueno speaks about the mix of grief, anger and relief she is experiencing after the death of her husband, who had argued for the right to assisted suicide; by the end he could not even bear the texture of hospital bedlinen and she had to fight to get him the right mix of sedative and pain-killing drugs.
There is a happy ending to another story. The paper records the joy of residents of Moropeche who found their animals safe and well after the village was threatened by a forest fire (Nacer dureante el fuego: los primeros vecinos evacuados por el incendio de Yeste, ya estabilizado, vuelven a sus casas). Moropeche was evacuated on Sunday and 81-year old Amada Ruiz told the paper that she left a candle burning in a bucket to pray for the donkey, five goats, six sheep, rabbits and chickens that she had to leave behind. Someone must have been listening because they all survived and by the time she got back on Wednesday, one of the goats had given birth to two little kids. The forest fire is now under control but the area is still being doused with water by firefighters.
ABC is Spain’s third largest general interest paper, according to Wikipedia, and I’ve been following it today for coverage of Prime Minister Rajoy’s appearance in front of the tribunal which is hearing evidence in the case of businessman Francisco Correa and his links to the ruling Partido Popular (Rajoy, en la Audiencia: “Mis responsabilidades son políticas, no de contabilidad”).
ABC credits Rajoy with an assured performance and robust denials of any personal involvement in wrongdoing – as predicted in the run-up to the hearing, he stressed that as deputy general secretary of the party at the time, he dealt with political rather than funding issues but was in fact responsible for throwing Correa out when concerns about his activities started to emerge. The case is nonetheless deeply embarrassing and the paper outlines the wrangling that took place over presentational issues around the Prime Minister’s appearance – refused permission to give evidence by video link, he was allowed to take a seat in the area reserved for lawyers, judges and the prosecution rather than place normally taken by witnesses and defendants.
As a bit of light relief I had a look at one of the paper’s most widely read articles of the day, which turned out to be a list of the books ABC’s arts correspondents will be taking on holiday. The recommendations include Walter Benjamin’s unfinished book about Paris (the English version is called “The Arcades Project”), a novel by Colombian writer Héctor Abad Faciolince called “La Oculta” praised by Juan Fernández-Miranda for his ability to portray the relationships between people and his rhythmic and intense prose. Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors gets a plug from book critic Luís Alberto de Cuenca.
Another day, another newspaper (El Mundo) and another story about corruption in high places … El Mundo’s lead is the news that Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain, will be appearing as a witness in a court case which is exploring alleged illegal links between the ruling conservative Partido Popular and a group of businessmen led by Francisco Correa (El ‘testigo Rajoy’ declarará ante la Audiencia Nacional “Yo eché a Correa”). The case is closely linked to the scandal surrounding the party’s ex-Treasurer Luís Bárcenas. Rajoy has said that he will tell the court that he was the one who threw Correa out of the party, and he himself is not accused of any wrongdoing, but his appearance is a serious embarrassment to the party, which is preparing for a media onslaught. Commentators on this centre-rightish paper’s site are not impressed.
Other prominent stories today include the trial of a jihadist who has admitted targeting vulnerable teenagers in an attempt to recruit them as ISIS fighters or brides for fighters in Syria (El yihadista que reclutó mujeres para casarlas con terroristas se arrepiente de colaborar con el IS). Under a deal with the prosecution he is receiving a reduced (five year) sentence.
The paper also reports on the savage beating sustained by a member of Spain’s alternative left Podemos party (El miembro de Podemos agregido a Toledo: “Podría estar en el tanatorio). The motives for the attack are not clear; the victim is currently involved in a very messy divorce case but was rescued by his wife, who was on the scene and rushed in to help – without her intervention, he thinks he might have died.