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The International Writers Magazine: From Our Spanish Correspondent

Spain's Watergate & Catalonia Referendum
• James Skinner


We all know the results of the voting. 88 % in favour of seperation. However, there is a lot more at stake here, including the general Spanish political atmosphere that I am sure will react in all directions. The government was cautious not to send in the 'troops' to physically stop the show. This was intelligent. Their next move was to threaten legal action against what they consider is a 'rebel' autonomous region including its government. This reaction was obvious, but will take months to sort out as the legal beagles get to work. Meanwhile, Artur Mas is revelling in it because, despite the national media, other than the Catalan, calling it a 'farce' he has scored a few brownie points with the Catalan people. His next step is, once again to appeal to the international arena for support in holding a true and proper referendum. This is a clever move. We're talking about the European Union and the United Nations. This would involve months if not years to implement for the simple reason that the Spanish Constitution would need to be overhauled. Taking these legal actions into account, Mas will gain time to continue with the independence propaganda as well as appease his partner and rival, Oriol Junqueiras of the ERC (Catalan Republican Party) who is definitely out for blood. For this latter group it is independence or nothing.

Mas' big mistake was probably in the timing of the event. I'm not certain that the 25th anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall occurring on the same date was taken into account. This blew some wind out of his sales as far as European media coverage was concerned. My journalist colleagues couldn't answer it either. A date that is embedded in Catalan history is the siege of Barcelona in 1714 during the end of the Spanish Succession War, but this occurred in the month of September. There are other details that need analysing such as the amateurish way the 'consultation' was held without the proper protocol measures similar to normal elections being taken into account and the response from other political parties, especially 'Podemos' (We Can), the new Marxist group that is gaining power on a daily basis. Spain has a multitude of other problems. Town council elections will take place next May and the politicians are gearing up for it; hence this event will return to the back-burner to simmer for a while until it blows up again. *Late News: Now VOX (centre-right) has accused Rajoy of violating the Constitution by allowing this 'consultation' to go ahead and are planning to sue him.

Corruption in Spain has taken on a new dimension that could threaten the government. A wider issue, that concerns all the developed countries, was the arrival of Ebola in Madrid. It has certainly been a hectic month, especially with the spread of Ebola cases causing the rich countries to stand up and be counted, take note and at last try to do something about it. We’ve had our fair share. Spain was the first country in Europe to report a case that was not imported from stricken Africa.

Last month, the Spanish government decided to bring back two Spanish priests, on two separate occasions, when it was discovered that they had contracted the disease. They had been working for years in West Africa as missionaries. Despite being taken care of by a special unit in the Carlos III hospital in Madrid both priests did not survive the ordeal. The criticisms poured in from both medical and political sections of the community, but it wasn’t until one of the auxiliary nurses that had been taking care of the patients suddenly developed high fever, nausea and diarrhea that the alarms bells began both in Spain and Europe. Young and healthy Teresa Romero from Lugo, Galicia, had taken a short holiday after her duties including a visit to her local hairdresser when the symptoms appeared. She called for an ambulance and was rushed back to the very same hospital. Ten days had elapsed. Although the expert medical attention with all the possible precautions taken for anyone diagnosed with a dangerous and infectious disease were in place, somehow Teresa picked up the bug from one of the priests. The health authorities immediately quarantined her as well as the sanitary personnel from the ambulance and the medical staff on duty in the outpatients. Her husband also joined the party. For the next couple of weeks, Teresa fought for her life. (Worth noting that to date 244 health-workers have died in West Africa battling EVD)

In the meantime the political machine took over and all hell broke loose. The first faux pa came from the Sr. Javier Rodriguez, Health Councilor of the Madrid regional government who accused her of total negligence. Teresa had accidentally touched her face when she removed all the protection garments after contact. The Spanish government Health Minister, Sra. Ana Mato likewise stuck her foot in it, more or less avoiding the public and issuing the odd non-committal statement to the press. It was only natural that both opposition and citizens were in an uproar, especially Teresa’s husband that has promised to sue the whole lot for negligence.

Towards the end of the month, all those that were held in quarantine have proven negative and been allowed to go home. Teresa has made a remarkable recovery and is waiting for the final 42 day period to be given the OK. The world health organizations have kept a close watch on the whole saga as the results and findings will be one gateway to the, hopefully, future control of the disease.

Back to the main issue: political corruption.

It’s been going on for months if not years in all areas and sectors of the country. In previous reports I have highlighted Judge Alaya in Andalucía more or less tearing the whole region apart. Then we had the famous Barcenas case. As a reminder he was the Conservative Party’s treasurer for 20 years, managed to personally syphon more than 50M Euros into dozens if not hundreds of off-shore bank and other financial investments and was sent to prison. Ah! But he got his own back. He declared before the judge that he had been paying out ‘extra’ money to most members of the executive known as payments in ‘B’ (undeclared black money) for years. He kept a secret hand written log of all the transactions. That was a few months ago and the case is still open.

Then we have the Pujol family affair. As explained earlier, Jodi Pujol of the CiU (Convergence and Union) right wing nationalist party of Catalonia, had been in office as President for none other than 23 years. Married and father of 7 children, he came forward a few months ago admitting that he had several million Euros stacked away in different bank accounts around the world. It opened up Pandora´s box. As of today, the whole family, including his own wife, is up before the judge investigated for all kinds of money laundering. His youngest son, Oleguer is being checked for non-other than the accounting of Two Billion Euros stashed away somewhere in the world.

This issue alone may cause a serious disruption on the political arena. I shall deviate slightly to put you in the picture.

It is well known that Catalonia is seeking full independence from Spain and is due to hold an ‘illegal’ public referendum on the 9th of November. The actual president, Artur Mas who is a member of the same party as Jodi Pujol has been on a hobby horse for months on this issue. There is one small caveat. Whereas in Pujol’s days he had full control of the autonomous government, Mas does not. He has struck a deal with an arch-rival, the left wing republican party ERC. Meanwhile, the Spanish government has refused to recognize this move and continues to apply the law to stop it. Whatever happens on the 9th will probably mean the end of the CiU alliance, Mas would have to resign and early elections would be held. The republicans would most likely be the winners. This is not good news as a new front in Spanish politics would be opened that challenges the very country by refusing to accept the King as Head of State.

The latest corruption scandal and probably the most serious.

So far the President Mariano Rajoy (PP) has been able to personally avoid the Barcenas scandals of ‘obscure’ party accounting procedures that are still being investigated. However, the new corruption scandal is far more serious as it not only hits at the heart of the conservative party, but has spread out to many members of the other parties including the trade unions. The culprits are beginning to fall like nine pins. The scandal is directly related to the recent overhaul of the banking system and the following is the reason why.

Enter the famous issue of corporate credit cards for ‘general expenses’ on company business as they are known in the capitalist world. I’ve had to use one in my earlier days as part of my management tasks when travelling around the world in order to purchase airline tickets and cover hotel expenses. But first is a recap on the Savings Banks.

As explained in early essays the Spanish Saving Banks were instituted more than a century ago to allow the ordinary citizen to save money as well as borrow for mortgage purposes with very generous interest rates. Similar to the cooperative societies in the UK, they were not intended to generate profits or dividends. When democracy took over from the Franco dictatorship days, most if not all management of these banks was handed over to the politicians of all colours and the trade unions. With oodles of money they soon set off on all kinds of investments that eventually turned sour and most of the banks had to be rescued. Enough on the banks; enter the credit cards.

Most of the executives over the years were given a credit card for their ‘extra’ expenses and many were honest enough not to abuse of their privileges. However, unlike corporate cards these were actual bank cards. Hence the personal expenses were never declared for tax purposes. This went on for years!

Why could it affect the government?

Two of the leading culprits, now before the judge had spent literally millions of Euros on all kinds of goodies, trips, lunches, holidays and other personal shenanigans. Trouble is that one is Sr. Miguel Blesa de la Parra, none other than the ex-President of the Madrid Savings Bank – now absorbed by Bankia - from 1996 to 2009. The other is Sr. Rodrigo Rato, vice-President and Finance Minister of the Conservative government from 1996 to 2004. What is even worse is that Sr. was also Head of the IMF until 2007 and later President of Bankia the bank that eventually had to be rescued during the crisis. By the way, the judge has set bail at 16M and 3M respectively for each of the accused. As more politicians are caught in the net the question now arises whether or not it will reach the very top of the government echelon. All very messy!

What is the general public reaction?

Well, the Socialist Party has a brand new leader and appears to be clear of the ‘virus’ and is reveling in it with all kinds of accusations. But the real winner is this new upstart political party ‘Podemos’ (We can) that I had reported on in a previous essay. If there were to be an election today the conservatives (PP) would still be ahead with 28% of the votes but the new lot has now overtaken the Socialists with 24.1% versus 23.7% respectively. What does this mean? We would no longer have a conservative majority regardless of agreements with other possible right wing parties. What is even more frightening is that a coalition of the far left wing could take over the government leaving both socialists and conservatives as the opposition. ‘Podemos’’s program is just short of a Marxist mandate. Town council elections are the next testing ground and from now on it is a real jamboree as to which direction the country moves as far as politics are concerned.

On a positive note, the Spanish banks have received a boost by passing the so called stress test set by the European Central Bank. It means that they should now open their doors for loans to the much awaited private business sector and hence give a kick-start to the street level economy. (We shall see.)

Apart from the above it’s near autumn time and Spain continues to enjoy summer weather, at least in my neck of the woods with ‘standing room’ only at the beaches and temperatures ranging 22º to 26º. Can still sit on the veranda at my local pub and enjoy a fresh beer without freezing.

© James Skinner. November 10th 2014

Catalonia’s defiance
James Skinner

Today’s new generations definitely believe that they are not part of Spain and should therefore be given the freedom to choose their future.

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