Monday, February 28, 2005

NO MATTER if he's already had several changes of mind regarding Bush's policies and the status of post-war Iraq; Andrew Sullivan still makes an extremely valid point today:
I think even the fiercest critics of president Bush's handling of the post-liberation phase in Iraq will still be thrilled at what appears to me to be glacial but important shifts in the right direction in the region. The Iraq elections may not be the end of the Middle East Berlin Wall, but they certainly demonstrate its crumbling. The uprising against Syria's occupation of Lebanon is extremely encouraging; Syria's attempt to buy off some good will by coughing up Saddam's half-brother is also a good sign; ditto Mubarak's attempt to make his own dictatorship look more democratic. Add all of that to the emergence of Abbas and a subtle shift in the Arab media and you are beginning to see the start of a real and fundamental change. Almost all of this was accomplished by the liberation of Iraq. Nothing else would have persuaded the thugs and mafia bosses who run so many Arab nations that the West is serious about democracy.
(hat tip: Pablocelan)

EVEN ON THE SAME DAY of a devastating terrorist attack, Arthur Chrenkoff's new roundup of the good news from Iraq is unmissable. Make sure to read it from top to bottom.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

DON'T MISS this article by Bartle Bull, who covered the Iraq war for the New York Times, on Prospect Magazine. It's subscription only, so I'll copy here some excerpts from Norman Geras' blog:
There is a fine defiance here. In one incident I did not see but that has been widely reported, a Baghdad policeman spotted a suicide bomber outside a polling station and dragged him away from the crowd before the bomber detonated his belt, killing them both. The queues rose tenfold as the story of the policeman's martyrdom spread.

Iraq is not about America any more. This has been increasingly true every day since last June, and the failure - or refusal - to recognise this has underpinned much of the misleading coverage of Iraq. In the evenings leading up to the election, I sat on carpets on the floors of a variety of shabby houses in the Baghdad slums. But the daily BBC message I watched with my various Iraqi hosts never budged. The refrain was Iraq's "atmosphere of intimidation and violence," and the message was that the elections could never work. What about the "atmosphere of resolve and anticipation" that I felt around me? Or the "atmosphere of patience and restraint" among those whom the terrorists were trying to provoke?

I try to avoid the hotels and the green zone and the Fort Apache press compounds when I am here. Sometimes it seems as though I am on a different planet from my colleagues in big media, and at those moments I worry briefly that I am getting the story wrong. The people at NBC news are not even allowed to go to the restaurant in their hotel. They report from the roof. When I went to the BBC's Baghdad bunker for some interviews after the election, the reporters I had been watching on television asked me, "So what's it like out there in the real world?" They meant the Iraqi street.

Before I became a writer, I dealt in the stock and bond markets. The markets tell you every day whether you are right or wrong. You don't have to have philosophical arguments with your boss or your clients: if you make money you are good, and if you lose money you are bad. Elections are one of the few news occasions that provide editors and reporters with the clarity of numbers to help us to judge whether or not we are doing a decent job. January 30th turned out to be a better day for Iraqis than it was for reporters.

The failure of "hotel journalism" might be forgivable if it were truly about prudence or even laziness. But there has been something wilful about the bad reporting of this story. It is weirdly personal: Iraq must fail. It is in fact the press that failed, on a scale for which I cannot think of a precedent. Will the big media outlets demand the same accountability of themselves that they demand of everyone else? They should, for the success of these elections was not so surprising to those who dug below the surface of Iraq.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

A SHAMEFUL QUID PRO QUO: Peter Mandelson, EU's trade commissiones, during a trip to China has hinted that Europe could lift the arms embargo if China limits its textile exports to Europe.
"We in Europe are preparing to move forward to lift the arms embargo," he said in a speech to students at Beijing's University of International Business and Economics.

Mandelson said China could adopt a cautious approach to the new global trading environment, highlighting textiles as an example following the lifting of quotas on January 1 this year.

"I have been encouraged by the readiness of China to consider introducing measures which may help to inhibit a dramatic surge of exports which could destabilize the new conditions under which world trade in textile products takes place," he said.
As my friend Josep Maria Fàbregas says in his blog (link in Catalan; my translation), "this means that Brussels is keen to sell the weapons with which China will threaten Taiwan, and in exchange Europeans will pay more for their clothes. That's a model of international policy, and not the Americans getting rid of Saddam so that Iraqis can go and vote!"

Friday, February 25, 2005

A KEY WITNESS of the March 11 plot, who was in hiding, has been found in the Caribbean and interviewed by a Spanish newspaper:
Jose Ignacio Fernandez Diaz, alias "El Nayo", a key witness in the March 11 bombings in Madrid, has been found by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo in the Caribbean. Fernandez Diaz is accused of conspiring with Suarez Trashorras and Antonio Toro, indicted as part of the terrorist plot. "El Nayo" is wanted by the Spanish justice system.
"El Nayo" revealed that Trashorras and Toro sold dynamite to ETA terrorists and accused a police officer of forming part of the criminal organization that sold explosives to the Islamist terrorists who committed the bombing, which killed 192 people.
Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso said yesterday at a press conference that he "had nothing to say" regarding this latest development, which comes directly after the declarations of Francisco Javier Lavandera on Wednesday. Lavandera, in a government witness protection program until just a few days ago, claimed that Toro and Trashorras had behaved "calmly, as if they were supported by powerful people."
"El Nayo's" statements have had an important political effect. The current Socialist (PSOE) administration has repeatedly denied any connection between ETA and the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks despite various pieces of evidence that have turned up in recent months.
Lavandera, the former police agent under witness protection program, said in another interview on a radio network the day before that the two Spanish guys from northwestern Spain charged with providing the explosives used in the March 11 bombings,
"behaved calmly as if they were supported by someone very powerful".Lavandera stated that he was certain that Toro and Trashorras had also supplied explosives to ETA on the COPE network's radio program "La Mañana". Lavandera informed the National Police about the two men's plans in 2001. Police actions in the Asturias region of northern Spain have been criticized, as the explosives used in the March 11 bombings were stolen from an Asturian mine and caused several resignations among members of the Guardia Civil. More controversy was caused by the appearance of a tape recorded by a police officer in which Lavandera accused Toro and Trashorras of having discussed for years a plan to steal explosives and traffic them in Morocco.
Murkier and murkier.

A Moroccan suspected of plotting to blow up Spain's High Court has been found hanged in his prison cell, the prison service says.

Mustafa Zanibar, 32, was already serving a 29-year prison term for murder when Judge Baltasar Garzon accused him of forming part of a militant Islamist group planning to blow up high-profile buildings in Madrid including Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu soccer stadium.

The "Martyrs for Morocco" plot to blow up the High Court with a truck bomb was discovered late last year and several arrests followed, but some of the suspects were already in jail for other offences.

Zanibar, who had been isolated since Garzon's accusation, was found hanged in the shower at a prison in Zaragoza, a spokeswoman for the prison service said.

Note the contradition: he was found hanged in his prison cell -first paragraph- and in the shower -fourth-. But what matters is that the guy was one of the guys who openly celebrated the 'success' of the March 11 bomb attacks in prison: he bought coffee for all inmates in his ward. Among them, several members of ETA, the Basque terrorist group.

JUDITH WEISS of Kesher Talk comments on the hilarious letter I reprinted in the previous post:
Spain's Mr. Bean-lookalike PM Zapatero - the most antiwar and anti-American leader in Europe - is now a Bush fanboy. If the White House sends him an autographed 8x10 glossy, will he send some troops back to Iraq?

Thursday, February 24, 2005

DAWN OF A NEW of US-EU relations, not!
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said he hoped meetings between European leaders and President George W Bush marked a new chapter in transatlantic relations.

"I am confident that today marks the beginning of a new phase," he told a press conference after the EU-US summit.

The Spanish prime minister said he had cordial exchanges with Bush, who greeted him in Spanish.

In a brief exchange, Bush asked: "Hola, que tal amigo?" (How are you?)

Zapatero answered in Spanish: "Muy bien, y tu?" (Good, and you)
And that was all; Bush immediately went aheat to greet other people. I don't know what Zapatero was expecting (a spit on the face?), but this doesn't look as a breakthrough to me, no matter how our dear leader wants to spin it.

The Demrealists say:
I watched the clips of the NATO meeting and this appeared to be the extent of the conversation. If Zapatero considers this to be groundbreaking developments in Spanish-Amerian relations, he better take a course on diplomacy. I also saw Zapatero with his "crazy-eyes" creeping in the background circling Bush. Strange.

Later during the press conference, Zapatero remarked "A relation of understanding and cooperation between Europe and the United States is key for maintaining peace and security in the world... And so that those bridges are solid, there needs to be two balanced pillars on each side of the Atlantic."
And after that, Spain's Foreign Minister Moratinos said in Parliament that the relationships between Spain and the US "are privileged".

I told you already that his approach to the truth is tortured.

UPDATE. Via James Taranto, this hilarious letter to the editor on Majorca's Daily Bulletin:
Zapatero said he was anti-Bush, the complete opposite of former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. But ever since his election, Zapatero has spent much of his time shadowing Bush and attempting to shake his hand. On Wednesday, he was waiting in the shadows, and made his move when Bush was talking to Tony Blair. Bush, who I suspect didn't really know who Zapatero was said “hola amigo” and continued talking to Blair. Meanwhile, Zapatero walked off smiling away like a child with a new pair of shoes. The exchange was so brief Spanish newspapers had a nightmare trying to find a photograph of the “great meeting.” To make matters worse a Spanish government spokesperson said that Bush and Zapatero had a “cordial exchange.” (They forget to mention it lasted about two seconds.) Even more laughable was the “meeting” Spanish Foreign Secretary Moratinos had with U.S. Secretary of State Rice. He literally rushed over to her in a passageway and then later claimed he had a summit meeting.

[...] If Zapatero got an invitation to the White House, he would probably frame the invitation card!

REVERSE LAPHAMIZATION at the Financial Times:
It is not just on the soccer pitch that Barcelona is at last beating perennial Spanish rivals Real Madrid, but off it too. Under construction magnate Florentino Pérez, Real had become the establishment club as well as the title-winning one.

But last night's Barcelona-Chelsea match was another sign of how the boot is on the other foot after the surprise election of José Luis Zapatero almost a year ago.

Zapatero, a Barça fan, became the first Spanish leader since the fascist dictator Francisco Franco to watch a game at the Nou Camp - and Franco only went to exorcise the ghosts of Catalan nationalism.
And this is written today, the day after a match that Zapatero didn't attend; he had to cancel the trip due to the weather conditions (two last links in Spanish).

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

THE DIGNIFIED RANT on Spain's EU Constitution referendum:
It looks like it will be a little over 40% turnout with the pro-constitution side winning handily. Given the nearly 60% turnout in Iraq without the deployment of Spanish troops to protect the voters, the presence of Spanish troops is not a predictor of voter turnout.
May I say "ouch"?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

YOU WANTED more indications that there was som foul play involved in the Madrid office tower fire, didn't you? (see previous posts here and here). Well, there's more information yet: a third video showing lights turned on (again, click in "ver video" in this page), and the locks in one door in the underground area and another in the second floor were broken into pieces. And the most intriguing news item today: a confirmation by police forensic experts (that would be sort of Spain's CSI) that the guys inside were carrying radio transmitters:
Two persons, not firefighters, carrying radio transmitters were inside the Windsor building in Madrid while it was on fire, said police sources to the Telemadrid network. Meanwhile, the Tele 5 network broadcast another home video, filmed at 3:50 AM on Saturday, February 12, in which three lights can be seen on one of the tower's stories only a few meters from the flames which at that moment were causing the collapse of the façade. At the same time, the unidentified individuals were filmed inside the building. The fire department insists that a person could not tolerate temperatures of over 300º C, which the fire would have produced, without a special suit. However, the real temperature inside the tower at the moment the videos were recorded is uncertain, since the maintenance story, with its heavy concrete, was just above the building's 16th floor and would have served as insulation against the heat.
My hunch is that there are two alternative explanations for all this: 1/ the fire was started by arsonists, for who knows what reasons, and they stayed in the building until they were sure that the work was sufficiently done. Could be organized crime, or someone trying to burn some damning evidence (remember the building were the offices of Spain's no.1 auditing firm and no.1's law firm); it could be terrorists, though I guess they would've claimed it publicly already. 2/ some rogue elements among the firefighters trying to illicitly get some valuables from upscale offices hoping that no one would notice since the whole thing was going to burn anyway. This would be consistent with the use of radio transmitters, and with the fact that only someone trained and used to be around blazing fires is likely have the guts to be with fire so close over their heads. Just watch the videos and you'll see what I mean.

What still amazes me is that, several hours after the fire started, and even after firefighters had been trying to extinguish the fire with lots of water, and even after they left because they realized they couldn't do anything... still electricity wasn't cut off? I'd expect this to be the first thing to do in such a situation. Oh, and one more thing: the owners of the building said that the fire couldn't possibly be a shortcircuit because electricity, heating / air conditioning is routinely cut off during the weekends, and the fire was on a Saturday. I never bought this, because anyone who has some knowledge of big multinationals and big law firms knows that it's very common to work at least some time during weekends, and obviously you need some juice for the computers, photocopiers, whatever; moreover, anyone would freeze there with no heating in the middle of February. Well, now we know the owners are not telling the truth.


UPDATE. Just heard on the radio that experts have concluded that the door locks were smashed by firefighters when trying to extinguish the blaze. Makes sense. Other intriguing points still stand, though. Which means the story is still, in drudge-speak, developing...

UPDATE II. On it's evening news, Tele 5 is reporting that the judge has ordered the interruption of the building's demolition; a complex system with giant cranes and robots were already in place, but they'll have to wait until the investigation is completed.

More information and background clicking on the banner, or clicking here.

Monday, February 21, 2005

REMEMBER WHAT I WROTE about the home video showing what seemed some people inside the Madrid office tower while it was burning? Well, a second video has appeared and has been broadcast on TV: it shows how someone turns the lights on, several floors below the fire was in full blaze. Remember, this was more than two hours after, according to official sources, all firefighters had left the building because there was nothing they could do to put the fire out and they feared the building might collapse. This is further indication that foul play may be involved: you can see a pic and the video for yourselves here (both the webpage and the video are in Spanish; click on "ver video")

EU REFERENDUM in Spain (see yesterday's post too), the day after:
Turnout in Spain's referendum on the European Constitution yesterday was 42.34%, the lowest in a vote in Spain since democracy was restored. Only four of ten voters came to the polls. 76.67% voted yes and 17.29% voted no. Despite the very low participation, prime minister Rodriguez Zapatero announced that Spaniards had "made European history" with a "clear firm yes". Oppostion leader Mariano Rajoy said that Zapatero "wanted to be first into Europe" but "he went too fast", since the low turnout "is a failure" for Zapatero.
The BBC's Katya Adler, in Madrid, says the turnout was embarrassingly low for the Spanish prime minister, who had promised to set a shining example for the rest of Europe.

Critics said the government's information campaign had been glitzy - with football and film stars calling for a Yes - but did not do enough to inform voters about the content of the charter.

In a recent poll, nine out of 10 Spaniards admitted they had little idea what the EU constitution is about.

The referendum was non-binding, with parliament set to have the final say.
Spaniards gave an overwhelming "yes" to the European Union's new constitution in a referendum on Sunday, but a low turnout may have dented EU hopes the vote would send a strong signal across the 25-nation bloc.

Supporters of the charter had hoped europhile Spain, the first member state to submit the constitution to a referendum, would set an example for waverers such as Britain and France.

[...] With both the ruling Socialists and the conservative Popular Party backing a "Yes" vote, the campaign failed to catch fire.

A muted "No" campaign came from regional parties demanding greater home rule and a left-wing group that wants more welfare commitments.

A third of voters opted for "no" in the Basque Country and 28 percent did so in Catalonia, results showed.
Deutsche Welle:
Spain Says Resounding Yes to EU Constitution
CNN'S Al Goodman couldn't file a more Zapatero-sympathetic report: only after several paragraphs about the 'success' he gets to mention the low turnout, and merely in passing.

The Guardian's leader:
Europe's new constitution - a copy of the 300-plus page document, to be precise - is to be launched into space in April in a stunt designed to flaunt the scale of the EU's ambitions. But it got a modest boost on earth yesterday in the estimated 79% to 16% endorsement by Spanish voters, though on a low turnout of only 41%.

The result of Spain's referendum on the constitutional treaty matters because the Spanish have traditionally been enthusiastic about Europe: membership in 1986 helped consolidate democracy after the Franco era as well as bringing generous subsidies from Brussels. Others holding referendums are less keen - and not only in chronically semi-detached Britain. Founding member France feels it has lost its place in a 25-strong club despite the advent of the euro. There is disenchantment in the once integrationist Netherlands. Newcomers such as Poland and the Czech Republic have doubts.

[...] Ignorance was a powerful factor for Spaniards. Just over a week ago nearly 90% confessed to knowing little to nothing about the constitution, despite a big advertising campaign and backing from fellow EU leaders for Jose Luis Zapatero, the socialist prime minister. Spain's centre-right opposition backed a yes vote, while the media overwhelmingly said "si". That is hard to imagine in the UK, where the tone is set by a largely europhobic media and opposition.
The Daily Telegraph's editorial is a must read:
It cannot be the beginning for which supporters of the EU Constitution had been hoping. Spain was the first country to hold a referendum precisely because it was thought likely to produce a thunderous "Yes". Spaniards have good reason to feel grateful to the EU, which they associate not only with subsidised motorways, but also with democratic stability. In the circumstances, "Yes" campaigners felt little need to discuss the constitution's contents. Instead, they argued that it was a great honour to be the first country to vote, that the eyes of all Europe were turned toward the Iberian peninsula and that it was the patriotic duty of every Spaniard to cast his ballot lest the country appear stand-offish. Yet the "Sí", when it came, was terse and reserved: fewer than one in three eligible voters supported the constitution.

What will be especially galling for Spanish Euro-enthusiasts is that there had been frenetic attempts to boost turnout. Footballers and celebrities were wheeled out to read some of the constitution's less turgid articles; advertising space was commandeered across the country; King Juan Carlos trooped dutifully to the polls in an attempt to jolly along his subjects. Indeed, the electoral commission was prompted to complain about the government's tendentious use of public money. Yet, in the event, most voters were unimpressed.

Euro-apologists will doubtless be quick with their explanations. Turnout was bound to be low, they will argue, when the result was a foregone conclusion. This is not what they were saying before the vote, incidentally; and, in any case, it is not true. When Spaniards voted for multi-party democracy in 1976, the outcome was even more certain, yet turnout was a healthy 78 per cent. When they voted to adopt their constitution two years later, it was 68 per cent. At last year's general election, it was 77 per cent. This time, for all the money thrown at the electorate, it seems to have been about 40 per cent.

The Times of London:
SPAIN became the first country to endorse the EU constitution in a national referendum yesterday — but not in the numbers required to give the document much-needed momentum ahead of nine other national votes.

Official results with almost all votes counted indicated that 77 per cent of voters who cast ballots approved the constitution in the first test of the document’s grassroots appeal. Seventeen per cent said no, with another 6 per cent of ballot papers spoiled.

That Europhile Spain would approve the constitution was never in doubt, but the key figure was the turnout. Only 42.3 per cent of Spain’s 34.6 million voters went to the polls. That was even less than the 45.9 per cent for the last European Parliament elections in June 2004 and the lowest for a referendum since Spain returned to democracy.

The turnout was enough to give the result respectability, but too low to claim that the constitution had received Spain’s overwhelming endorsement.

[...] Spain’s reputation as the most enthusiastically pro-European nation seemed to make it the logical choice to go first, but the constitution will face much stiffer opposition in Britain, Denmark, Poland and even France, where scepticism is growing.

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia were among the earliest voters. They hoped to encourage their subjects to follow suit and avoid giving a grudging image of a nation that has reaped huge economic dividends from EU membership.

But the majority of voters chose to register their indifference or annoyance at the referendum campaign by ignoring Señor Zapatero’s appeal for them to vote. The prime minister had staked his political reputation on a big turnout, racing to hold the first referendum and bent on returning Spain to the heart of European politics.

In recent weeks he has toured the country, importing the French president Jacques Chirac and the German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to support him and using sports stars and artistic personalities to boost the Yes campaign.

And the best part, which describes a real fact: "[Zapatero] has accused the Catholic Church, which said it was acceptable to abstain, and the PP of lacking enthusiasm, an opinion which was amplified by other socialists who accused the opposition of covertly urging their supporters to stay at home or vote No to “avenge” last March’s election defeat." A real fact, and a real whopper from Zapatero, because he has never accused to his parliamentary coalition partners (Catalan nationalists and the Communist Left) for their "No" campaign. Talk about double standards.

The International Herald Tribune:
Government officials said privately before the vote that a turnout above 35 percent would be acceptable. But academics said they found that claim unpersuasive.
And wrong: they only started saying that 35% would be acceptable at the very last moment: during most of the campaign, they showed around a poll by government-owned polling organization (yes, there's such a thing in Spain) predicting a 67% turnout. The IHT continues:
A more accurate gauge, they said, would be to compare the turnout with that for the June elections for representatives to the European Parliament. The figure for those elections was 45 percent, which was widely described as a disappointment by academics and editorial writers.
And as I said in my Spanish blog, the two elections can't be compared: one is held every four years, and this is "once in a lifetime" thing, as Zapatero repeated over and over in campaign rallies. Therefore to be a success, the turnout should have been much higher, not just equal, to EU parliament election.

Press Association:
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero hailed the results – and the turnout.

“I feel very satisfied,” he said, adding that support for the constitution “has been very broad.”

“Today we Spaniards made European history because our vote is a message directed to the rest of Europe’s citizens, who were waiting eagerly for our response,” Zapatero said.
I want to smoke what he does.

The New York Times:
But some political experts say that decisions on the Constitution are likely to be determined by the internal politics of each nation, and that the lessons from Spain's experience may have little relevance elsewhere.

The Spanish campaign, for example, focused heavily on the economic development and political stability that have taken root here since the country joined the European Union in 1986. Much of the progress, the government argued, has been because of the more than $100 billion in financial assistance that has poured in from Brussels since then. "Europe has been good to Spain," read one of the government's slogans.

But this argument is unlikely to be exported to richer countries like Germany that have contributed much of the money that has allowed members like Spain and Portugal to modernize. And as the ratification process moves forward, each nation is expected to tailor its interpretation of the Constitution to suit domestic concerns.

In Britain, where critics complain that ratification would threaten British sovereignty, Prime Minister Tony Blair has emphasized that the Constitution preserves the autonomy of the member states.

In Spain, by contrast, Mr. Zapatero had to defend the Constitution against claims that it is too narrow in scope. "Those who oppose the Constitution here say they want more Europe or a different Europe," said José Ignacio Torreblanca, a political analyst at the Royal Elcano Institute, a research organization in Madrid that focuses on international affairs. Few Spaniards favor a weaker Constitution, he added.

The differing interpretations among member states reflect not only the diversity of their political climates but also the fact that the Constitution is a complicated document that lends itself to a variety of readings.

Rather than simply lay out broad principles underlying the proposed system of government, the document delves into the details of arcane policy matters, Mr. Torreblanca said. "Can you imagine the Constitution of the United States discussing a common fishing policy?" he asked.

And in the blogosphere, Juan Hervada:
Well, at last Spaniards had their vote on the European Constitution to be. How could I put it? Say that many more Iraqis defied the terrorists and went to vote on January 30 than Spaniards braved the rain to go to say whether they thought it a good idea to make into law the constitutional treaty.
Robert Duncan wonders if 40% is a "resounding" yes, and John Chappell is quite pleased with the results.

There is not a hope in hell that all - even a majority - of the people who voted in today's Spanish referendum actually understood what it was all about. This is why you generally speaking don't ask the average guy in the street to negotiate international treaties. Much as I'd prefer a qualified surgeon to be the one to poke around my insides with a sharp scalpel if I had to have an operation, I'd rather major decisions about international treaties were left to experienced statesmen and diplomats. Would you really have wanted Fred and Dora Ramsbottom from Harrogate to have been Britain's representatives at the Yalta Conference? Would you have wanted Bert Entwistle from Dudley sat alongside Woodrow Wilson at Versailles? So why are we asking for their opinions about our latest international agreement? The mind boggles...
Peaktalk notices to things worth of interest.

UPDATE. The Australian:
SPANISH voters yesterday became the first to endorse the proposed European Union constitution but a disappointingly low turnout raised fears about how the new treaty will fare when it is put to more sceptical voters in countries such as Britain.

Spain is one of the most enthusiastic members of the EU and the overwhelming yes vote of 77 per cent against 17 per cent for no was the sort of endorsement European leaders were hoping for ahead of referendums in at least nine more nations over the next 18 months.

The bad news for the 25 EU member governments -- which all support the treaty -- was that only 42 per cent of Spanish electors bothered to vote, a lacklustre turnout given Spain's strong traditional support for European integration and its usual turnout of 60-78 per cent in past national referendums.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

TODAY IS REFERENDUM DAY in Spain; the so-called European Constitution (which is an unappropriate denomination, since it actually is an international treaty) gets voted today. The biggest fear by Zapatero's government is in case the voter turnout is really low, since the whole thing would be a real slap in the face of the Prime Minister utopian pro-European stance. A "yes" vote is virtually assured, after the propaganda campaign (and I mean, propaganda) and since the main party in opposition, the right-of-center Popular Party is also for a yes vote. I guess they won't cry much much if the turnout is low, though.

We will keep you updated through the day. Polling stations will close at 8pm local time (7pm GMT, 2pm EST), and that's when exit polls will be available (it's not legal here to publish them during the day, so they don't have an influence in the vote). Official results will be announced about 2 hours after that. So far, the only official data which has been released is the turnout at 3pm: 21.63%.

Which is really low; this would mean that the total turnout would be between 35 and 40%. Next official data of turnout, at 7pm local time (6pm GMT, 1pm EST), just one hour before the polling stations close.

UPDATE. Well, the next data of the provisional official turnout were released half an hour earlier than expected: at 6.35 pm local time (5.35 pm GMT, 12.35 pm EST) the turnout was 32,92%. I think it's more than likely that the final percentage will be just below 40%.

UPDATE II. Polling stations have just been closed, and the first exit poll (in fact, the only one since it's been purchased by the pool of all MSM) has been released:

Turnout: 41%

Yes: 77/80%

No: 15/17%

Blank: 5/6%

(blank votes is a third possibility for people who wanted to vote, but wanted neither a "yes" nor a "no" vote; historically, it's approx 2/3%, so it's double than usual).

As I said, this is only a poll and not the official results. It remains to be seen whether there'll be any hidden "no" vote, that is, people not willing to admit openly and in a loud voice to a pollster outside the station that they voted "no". My guess, due to the social pressure for the "yes" is that there will be some, but obviously not as much as to make a significant change (maybe a one-digit difference).

The most remarkable thing is that the low turnout seems to be confirmed, and it's very significant: even if, say, 75% of people voted "yes", it would be a 75% of a 40% turnout, meaning roughly that the European "Constitution" would be actively supported by only 30% of eligible voters. That's extremely, extremely low, and against what Zapatero was hoping: an example of Europeanness to other countries that have planned a similar vote. If the most pro-European country -according to all polls- manages to get a 40% turnout only, what will happen, say, in the much more Euro-skeptic UK? I'm sure Zapatero will spin this result as a triumph (one of his party's deputies has just said so), but actually it's almost a death blow continent-wise.

Official results will be available at 9.30 pm local time, approximately (8.30 pm GMT; 1.30 pm EST). Will keep you posted.

UPDATE III. Final turnout should have been announced already, but they haven't updated the 33.04% data corresponding to 6.35 pm. Broadcast network Tele 5 wonders why, and mentions "what seems to be some kind of blackout". Is it because it's lower than what the poll suggests, and it's going to be lower than 40%?

UPDATE IV. At 9 pm local time (8 pm GMT, 3 pm EST), and 66.72% counted votes:

Turnout: 42.10%

Yes: 76.95%

No: 17.01%

Blank: 6.03%

UPDATE V. Almost final official results, from a press conference by the deputy Prime Minister (yes, the one who said she didn't want to be confused for Claudia Shiffer, as if there was any risk, as you'll see on the link) and Interior minister:

Counted votes: 93.54%

Turnout: 42.43%

Yes: 76.49%

No: 17.43%

They don't mention the blank votes, maybe because they're the most embarrassing kind of all: 6.08%.

PM Zapatero is expected to speak in some minutes, and he's likely to tout the results as a victory. I wouldn't say so: after all, it's been the lowest turnout of Spain's democratic period since the death of Franco in 1975. Just as comparison, the previous record low was in June 2004 in the vote for the European Parliament (turnout: 45.94%). On March 14, the turnout on the general election three days after the Madrid terrorist attacks was 77.29%.

UPDATE VI. In two autonomous communities with strong nationalistic -even pro-independence- forces, the results are worse for Zapatero:

Catalonia (where Zapatero's coalition partners were campaigning for a "No" vote):

Turnout: 40.97%

Yes: 64.63%

No: 28.08%

Blank: 7.29%

Basque Country:

Turnout: 38.75%

Yes: 62.61%

No: 33.66%

Blank: 3.73%

VIA PUBLIUS PUNDIT, I have learnt about an amazing blog, Radio Free Nepal, covering the turmoil inside the country after the authoritarian coup by king Gyandendra. Check it out regularly, it has unmissable texts and pictures on a situation needing a close followup.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

FOUL PLAY in the Madrid office tower fire? When the building burned down last week, I wrote "They'll have to investigate not only the cause of the fire, but why hydrants and fire-extinguishing automatic systems didn't work; even though there were renovations, the offices were working just the same. Hmmm."

Well, it turns out that a home video taped by one of the neighbors who was watching the tower on fire has surfaced, and it shows what seems to be some people, with a torch/flashlight [added both UK and US English words for clarification -- F.A.], several floors below at the very same moment when the upper floors were burning spectacularly. The images were taken between 3 and 6 am, and the really suspicious thing is that the fire department has officially declared that at 1 am -that is, two hours before the first images were taped- all firemen had evacuated the building because they saw that there was nothing they could to to put it out. The video has been shown by all TV networks, and you can see it by yourselves here (link and information in Spanish, from Tele 5, one of the broadcast TV networks: on that page, click on "ver video" and a popup player will start).

Images are quite blurry, especially on the internet, but law enforcement officers are saying that the tape apparently is genuine and has not been manipulared. And believe me, seeing them on TV it looks really suspicious; it doesn't look as an optical effect at all.

Besides, I have just seen on TVE (the government-owned TV network) another witness who didn't take pictures but who also saw people in the building at that time.

Hmmmmm indeeed. As Matt Drudge would say, "Developing..."

UPDATE. Forgot to mention that officially there were no victims and there was nobody missing. Was it someone trying to save documents (the building was the office of 1/ the auditing firm Deloitte & Touche, which is the absolute no.1 in Spain and audits most of the firms in the Madrid Stock Market's reference index, and 2/ Spain's leading law firm)? Was it the perpetrators of the fire (the version that it had been a short-circuit had been in doubt already for a couple of days)? Unlikely, since they would have already fled after starting the fire. Besides, it would have been almost unthinkable that at that time, when the building was cordoned off and watched carefully by firemen, police, TV news cameras, hundreds of onlookers, they could have escaped unseen. Unless they were, say, "suicide fire perpetrators", if ya know what I mean. But then again, why no bodies? Too burnt to notice? I have no knowledge of forensics, but I guess at least some traces would've been discovered at this point.

UPDATE II. South Africa's News24 has picked up the story (hat tip: Thomas Lifsom)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

THE ETA TERRORISTS arrested by Spanish police a couple of days ago wanted to murder politicians and law enforcement officers with a sniper refile, and apparently King Juan Carlos too. And look at this charming letter seized from them:
In addition, letters seized from the suspects showed an ETA leader was eager to kill a uniformed policeman to help lift morale within the outlawed group, which has been severely weakened by a sustained police clampdown.

"We have to start killing people as soon as possible ... With the situation we are in, it would be fantastic and give us strength," said the letter, purportedly written by ETA's current leader in France, Garikoitz Aspiazu Rubina, alias "Txeroki" (Cherokee).

Meanwhile, two more were arrested earlier today in Valencia when they were almost going to strike.

'PRETENTIOUS, PROPAGANDA' EU vote looms in Spain, writes EUPolitix:
Madrid is running scared of debate as a Spanish vote on the EU constitution looms, warns Íñigo Méndez de Vigo MEP.

The Spanish centre-right MEPis a leading campaigner for a ‘si’ vote and a supporter of a referendum on the EU constitution.

But the European Parliament’s co-rapporteur on the new EU treaty is less than impressed with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s “pretentious” choice of referendum date.

And the Partido Popular MEP believes the Socialist Madrid government is ducking debate – a situation that could be a key factor in a poll expected to be dominated by don’t knows and don’t cares.

“I would not say it is an error to hold a referendum. I would say it is an error to hold it on February 20. And I think is a political error not to inform and to avoid debate,” he told

Mendez de Vigo has learned two lessons – and indicted Zapatero’s government on two counts.

He fears that the referendum will be marred by the date, with February’s cold winter weather deterring voters.

“The first lesson is that a government should never call a referendum on February 20. That is the first reason and the Spanish government has done it for only propaganda reasons. To say ‘we had the first in Europe’,” he said.

“Politically they wanted this date to show how European they were, to show it in a very pretentious way.”

Méndez de Vigo suggests, an uneasy ruling Socialist parliamentary coalition with left-wing ‘non’ campaigners has stifled debate – a pre-condition to an informed referendum.

“The government only wants to give information and does want to hold any debate. The government doesn’t want to appear in public with its parliamentary associates, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and the Communist Party.”

“These parties call for a no vote in the referendum. The government does not want to show this contradiction so there are no, or very few, debates. People get information through debates and hear all the positions, this is not the case. Therefore there is a lack of information and an absence of debate, which in my view is a very bad thing,” he said.

“Now they don’t want any debate because they are in trouble when we ask them how can you be in government if your allies have another vision of Spain in Europe? Spain is part of Europe, and European policy is part of Spanish policy, you can disassociate them. This, the government does want to show, therefore they try not to have any debate.”
Truth is, everything seems to point that the turnout will probably be anemic, no matter what some government-paid polls are saying. A very significant indication comes from the number of people who have applied for absentee ballot: so far, only 186,000, which is a stunning 41.87% lower than in the European Parliament elections in June 2004, when the turnout was only 45.94 %. So we could see a lower 30s, even a high 20s, here. This is why the electoral authority has just announce that it will extend the period for casting abstentee ballots -which was supposed to end today- for 48 more hours. Something that I guess it's legal, but it's the first time it's been done in the country.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

THE KYOTO PROTOCOL takes effect today, and Spain's evironment minister releases a study which is more voodoo science than anything else:
The Kyoto Protocol takes effect today. So environment minister Cristina Narbona presented an apocalyptic study yesterday according to which Spain will be one of the countries most affected by climate change. Narbona stated that by the end of the 21st century, average temperatures might rise as high as seven degrees C, and that sea levels would rise by a meter, destroying beaches and flooding built-up coastal areas.
The study, performed by the environmental ministry and Castile-La Mancha University, sets out two scenarios. In the first, the more pessimistic, emissions of greenhouse gases will be 120% higher than today in 2100. The second, more optimistic, foresees slower growth of such emissions, to double today's level. The study also states that Spain will suffer from more "natural catastrophes" and that "invading species" of animals and plants will proliferate, causing an increase in diseases transmitted to people by mosquitoes and ticks.
Oh, by the way, the news above comes from the Spain Herald, a new online newspaper in English from the same guys at Libertad Digital, the widely successful online newspaper in Spanish and one of the very few ones with a libertarian, centrist -and sometimes a bit too conservative for my taste- perspective. Spain is probably the Western country more dominated by a liberal/leftist MSM. so any outlet which is not anti-Western, not anti-American, not Bush-hater is certainly welcome. I recommend it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

An alleged member of ETA had hidden a sniper rifle inside a tennis racket and was targeting leading politicians and officers from the security forces soon, police sources said.

The would-be assassin was like the fictional paid killer brought to life British author Frederic Forsyth in his book 'The Day of the Jackal', which was made into a film.

In the book, The Jackal tries to kill French president Jacques de Gaulle in Paris.

In real life, Javier Pérez Aldenate, an alleged leading member of the Basque terrorist organisation, was arrested on Saturday in Basauri, in the Basque Country.

When police raided his home, they found information about politicians and members of the police and Guardia Civil.

They also seized a rifle with a telescopic sight , typically used by a sniper, and a Chinese-made pistol.

Spanish prosecutors are seeking a total of 222,000 years in prison and nearly 900 million euros ($1.17 billion) in fines for three suspects accused of aiding the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The punishments are among a total of 230,000 years of prison terms sought for 24 suspects held in jail on charges of belonging to an al-Qaida unit in Spain, according to court documents filed on Monday.

The trial was due to start this month but has been delayed indefinitely because of a backlog of cases at the High Court.

The prison terms correspond to all the charges, including 2,973 murders for those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, but Spanish law would limit jail sentences to a maximum of 40 years.
Oh, and this:
Another high-profile suspect from the 24 due to go on trial is Tayseer Alouni, 49, a correspondent from Arabic television channel Al Jazeera who interviewed Osama bin Laden shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.

Prosecutors are seeking an eight-year term for Alouni on charges of collaborating with a terrorist organization. Alouni has repeatedly maintained his innocence.

STEVE NATSCHKE, a reader of this blog, writes a kind email; he's returned to civilian life after being in active duty at CENTCOM for two years:
Speaking for myself and my family, I'd like to thank Spain for their troops and their sacrifice in Iraq. While they were there they did a great job and it was unfortunate that they were pulled out before the original date. Please pass along our gratitude to others.
He provides some details of the Spanish troops deployment there:
I read many of the reports coming in to the CENTCOM headquarters from the people on the ground in Iraq. The efforts by Poland and Spain are unique. Poland is the lead country of the Multi-National Division Center South. Spain was the lead country for one of the brigades that made up that division. That brigade was made up of not only Spanish soldiers but of soldiers from Latin American countries as well. Most people don't appreciate the difficulties associated with commanding troops from a county other than your own. It becomes very complex. That Poland and Spain took this on is a tribute to their militaries. This is especially so since most countries do not necessarily build their militaries around deploying abroad.
It takes very competent people and a lot of hard work to coordinate a multi-national deployment.
So, with his permission to republish his email, I copy this (also in the Spanish edition) so his words reach others in my country who also support the Iraq operation.

And above all, thank you too, sir, for your service and your commitment to freedom.

Steve is going to be in Madrid in a few weeks; I hope to meet him in person if I have the chance of being there during his stay, or if he decides to hop to Barcelona. Beers are on me.

UPDATE. My buddy Manel comments.

THE LAND of the Amiable Tyranny - The Basque Conundrum Revisited is the first of a series on Basque nationalism and ETA terrorism by Juan Hervada:
Let me just say that it is now my opinion that the Basque Country constitutes the most worrisome situation from a human rights point of view throughout Western Europe. The last shelter of scientific racialism in the developed world, the one spot in the European Union where people are openly discriminated against because of their ethnical origins, often by local public servants.
Juan quotes and comments an essay by Cori Lubliners, a scientist and teacher at Berkeley; make sure you read the whole series as it appears.

Monday, February 14, 2005

LEE SMITH emails so that I don't miss his most interesting encounter with Ammar Abdulhamid which appeared in yesterday's New York Times Magazine. Abdulhamid is a Syrian liberal who is currently under intense scrutiny from the regime's security services and deserves our support. So read the whole thing and spread the word (link doesn't require subscription).

ARTHUR CHRENKOFF is at it again with the 21st installment of his Good News from Iraq series:
Mark Steyn, the joker in the conservative pundit deck, but also in many ways the shrewdest and the most insightful of the lot, wrote in the aftermath of the Iraqi poll:
Like a four-year-old child, the media were so distracted by bright colours and loud noises that they missed the real story. Set fire to a second-hand Nissan and they send a camera crew round to take pretty pictures of the big plume of smoke rising up in the sky.

But the seeds of a democratic culture are harder to spot.
Which is why many of those who for almost two years provided us with a steady diet of disaster and negativity out of Iraq were unprepared and quite clearly taken aback by the spectacle of majority of Iraqis defying the terrorists and insurgents to participate in by large a free and successful democratic election.

Steyn is right; the seeds of a democratic culture are harder to spot, particularly for the media that obsesses with reporting events (explosions, gunfights) as opposed to processes (reconstruction - physical, political, spiritual - of a country and society). The verdict on Iraq remains open. Only time will tell whether Saddam's former fiefdom will become a normal and successful state, perhaps the first Middle Eastern domino to fall for democratization and reform, or whether political and religious entropy will prevail to send Iraq down a spiral of theocracy, or perhaps civil war and territorial disintegration.

Yet, if Iraq does pull through, the signs of slow and gradual progress were always there to see. I have been chronicling them in this series for nine months now, and when majority of Iraqis defied threats and cast their ballots of January 30, I was not surprised; the successful election was not a bolt out of the blue but a culmination of a year and a half of hard work by millions of Iraqis and citizens of the Coalition countries. To use Churchill's formulation, the election, of course, is not the end or even the beginning of the end, but hopefully the end of the beginning. Let us all hope that the journey will continue in the right direction. In the meantime, here are some snapshots from the past two weeks along the way.
Don't miss'em.

ANA PALACIO, foreign minister in Aznar's administration (and who we miss particularly because of his successor in the Zapatero's cabinet, the truth-twisting, gaffe man mister Moratinos), has a superb piece today on the Wall Street Journal eloquently titled "The Incredibly Shrinking Spain":
In some Spanish political circles, people wonder why Condoleezza Rice didn't come to Madrid on her grand European tour last week. But the omission shouldn't surprise anyone. In the 10 months since José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero took office as prime minister, Spain has abandoned a high-profile foreign policy and today relishes in an ill-defined role as a second-rate player on the world stage.

It did not have to turn out this way. When Mr. Zapatero took over last March, Spain was the world's eighth largest economy, the sixth biggest investor worldwide (second in Latin America) and the fifth most popular destination for investment. It was one of the most open economies in the world, boasting a balanced budget and a growth rate double the EU average. It was at the height of its political influence in Europe and the world in recent memory.

In no time, this inspiring picture turned dark. In his first action of note in European affairs -- the final negotiations on the new European Constitution -- Mr. Zapatero negotiated away Spain's position of influence in the EU by diluting its voting powers in the new constitution. In economic policy, he seems driven by an obsession to intervene, from limiting stores' opening hours to backing an attempt to raise the minimum wage. Of course, the economic costs of mismanagement aren't felt by consumers immediately. But the Bank of Spain has revealed that only eight months into Mr. Zapatero's term, direct foreign investment had fallen by 80%.

Read the rest; if you can't because you don't have a WSJ subscription, well, don't tell anybody but you can find the whole thing here.

MADRID OFFICE TOWER FIRE update: the fire itself has been extinguished, and the building -or rather, what remains of it- is still in a very unstable condition. The danger of collapse still exists, but apparently it will resist although, obviously, it will have to be demolished. Meanwhile, the whole area is pretty much closed down until Wednesday; tenths of thousands of workers couldn't get into their workplaces this morning (remember, the burnt tower is in the middle of the business district, surrounded by several highrises). With the traffic restrictions, and the three subway lines beneath diverted, the city is in commuting chaos.

You can see four pages of amazing photos here; you can also see video taken during the worst part of the blaze here; it's from Catalan public-owned TV (look for the word video; the report itself is in Catalan, but images speak for themselves).

Sunday, February 13, 2005

ONE OF MADRID'S tallest buildings, in the heart of the city's financial district, went spectacularly on fire last night and has been virtually destroyed:
MADRID, Spain - Firefighters shot jets of water on one of Madrid's tallest office buildings for a second day Sunday, fighting to control a fiery orange blaze that began the night before and threatened to collapse the 32-story skyscraper.

The morning light exposed the damage from the spectacular fire that lit up the night and attracted thousands of onlookers. The top floors were little more than charred steel twisted into destroyed shapes. Everything else was burned away.

"We are battling Madrid's most important fire in its history," said mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, speaking from the scene Sunday morning. "The situation right now is still of high risk. It will take hours until this fire is declared under control."

[...] Three firefighters suffered smoke inhalation and exhaustion. No other injuries were reported.

[...] Most of the Windsor Building, about 350 feet high, housed offices of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, a multinational financial services company. The fire appeared to start about three-quarters of the way up the building.
The building was under renovation -while occupied-, and the fire started in floor 21, but was so big that it expanded not only to upper floors, but went trickling down to virtually all levels below. The immediate cause of the fire is still unknown; the first impression is that it was due to a short-circuit, but I blame Aznar, or Bush.

More seriously, it will be impossible to know until the fire is 100% extinguished and forensic experts go in. They'll have to investigate not only the cause of the fire, but why hydrants and fire-extinguishing automatic systems didn't work; even though there were renovations, the offices were working just the same. Hmmm.

Will keep you updated. Meanwhile, webcam pictures here, and some very powerful pictures here.

UPDATE. From the BBC:
Spanish media said the fire appeared to have been an accident.

But Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardon, speaking from the scene of the blaze, was reluctant to speculate:

"All I can say for sure is that the fire started on the 21st or the 22nd floor of the building and that it was empty at the time.

"It's been suggested that the blaze may have been caused by a short-circuit, but I can't confirm any speculation at the moment."

Mr Gallardon said it was impossible for the fire services to put out the fire in the building itself and that there were grave doubts that the concrete skeleton of the office building would hold.
Which is going to be a dangerous situation, since as you can see in this picture of the Azca area (the business area with highrises which goes along on of Madrid's main artheries, the Paseo de la Castellana) a sudden collapse of the building would be devastating for people going in or out of them, or for shoppers in El Corte Inglés, a big department store (a bit like Bloomingdales, so to speak). Azca is also a hub for underground transportation (tunnels for vehicles, cummuter trains, and 3 subway lines), and is probably one of the spinals cord for the city's utilities canalizations.

UPDATE II. TV networks and new reports are currently saying that the building could crumble down in any minute.

UPDATE III. AFP reports:
A pall of brown smoke dominated Madrid's skyline as officials said that a 31-floor office building in a central neighbourhood could collapse after the biggest fire in the Spanish capital's history.

[...] "The situation is critical," said Mirardo Tudela, deputy chief of the Madrid fire department at a televised press conference. "The structure of the building is unstable."

Madrid Mayor Alberto Riuz Gallardon said it was "the biggest fire in Madrid's history."

As firefighters continued to fight the blaze, the police chief of the Spanish capital, Cinstantino Mendez, said even if the building didn't collapse, "it will have to be demolished because it's in ruins."

[...] One of the architects, Genaro Alas, declined to comment to reporters on the building's stability without more information. He said it was not known why a fire-alarm system didn't work, causing the firefighters to arrive late to the scene.
Wouldn't like to sound paranoid, but hmmmmm, again.
Some residents were fearful that the city, scene of a series of devastating train bombings which killed 191 people last March, might have been attacked again.

"It immediately reminded me of the attack on the twin towers" in New York in September 2001, one onlooker told a reporter.
You can't see it in the still pictures, but on video the resemblance is quite eerie, with fire coming out of the building and debris, glass and paper raining down.

UPDATE IV. Bloomberg:
New York-based Deloitte & Touche occupied 20 floors of the building, where about 1,000 employees worked, Deloitte's Madrid spokesman Gregorio Panadero said. Deloitte audits 19 of Spain's 35 largest-traded companies by market value, including Telefonica SA, Santander Central Hispano SA and Repsol YPF SA, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Financial information is "safe'' because it's held on computer back-ups and the majority of Deloitte's Madrid employees can continue working tomorrow from other locations, Panadero said in an interview. Deloitte expects to select a new Madrid headquarters "in a few days,'' he said.

[...] An adjacent Corte Ingles shopping complex and other nearby buildings will be closed until at least Feb. 16 while structural studies are carried out, Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon said in a press conference in Madrid.

``The situation remains critical,'' Ruiz-Gallardon said. Three underground subway routes were closed.

The Windsor Building is also close to a block that houses the executive offices of Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA, Spain's second-largest bank.

[...] The possibility that a short circuit started the blaze was an "initial hypothesis,'' Constantino Mendez, a Madrid regional government delegate, said in a Tele Madrid interview this morning. Firefighters may take most of today to determine when they can enter the building, he said.

Ruiz-Gallardon said the investigation will also look into the possibility that the fire started as a result of "negligence.''

Friday, February 11, 2005

NOT ONLY Islamic clerics do it:
Spanish police probing the armed Basque separatist group Eta arrested a 75-year-old Benedictine monk today.

The Interior Ministry gave no further details but it was reported that the monk was arrested over suspected links to Eta’s leader and may have acted as a courier for him.

The arrest was made at a monastery in the Basque town of Lazkao and news agency Efe identified him as Juan Jose Aguirre Beguiristain.

Police said the arrest was based on documents seized when Eta’s leader, Mikel Antza, was arrested in south-west France in October.

Police also searched the monastery where the monk lived.
UPDATE (Feb, 12). After being interrogated by the police, the monk was released without charges (link in Spanish).

UPDATE 2. Link in English.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

I spent nearly all of Sunday, January 30 glued to the TV, following the reports, on all the internacional channels, on the Iraqi elections. It had been a long time since I was so moved by a political event.

To be truthful, I was “hoping against hope” for what happened. Not because I’m psychic, but from what I learned during my short visit to the country, in late June-early July of 2003, where, in all the places I visited, I noticed a generalized sense of relief and great hope after the fall of the Baath and Saddam Husein regime.
Read the rest, available thanks to Fausta's translation.

SIMON JEFFERY, over at The Guardian's blog, writes about yesterday's car bomb by ETA:
The reasoning appears to be to remind the Spanish political classes it has not gone away. The territory occupied by its banned political wing, Batasuna, was squeezed by the mainstream Basque nationalist parties when Juan José Ibarrexte, the regional premier, took what amounted to a plan for independence to the Madrid parliament. It needs to get Batasuna unbanned before the Basque elections in April to regain a diminishing voice, and has asked Madrid to begin talks.

In such a political context the bombings are harder to understand, but Eta appears unable to renounce violence. Speculation that it would announce a ceasefire was dashed on January 18 when it detonated a bomb in Gexto, near Bilbao, and it has shown itself unwilling to comply with the Spanish government's demand that it lays down arms before talks begin. For all the bombs, the group itself is weak. Arrests have whittled down its active membership and most of the senior leaders are in jail. In October, they called for what remains of Eta to give up. The rump is looking for a way out, but through pure terrorism – the fear of what it could do – trying to get the best possible terms for its exit.

Jeffery thinks that the strategy won't work because Zapatero has stated clearly that there's no room for terrorists in Spanish society. I wouldn't be so sure; the rumors are growing -and he hasn't flatly denied them- that the government has been in secret talks with ETA for months, even after the previous car bomb in Getxo.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

USING MICHAEL MOORE'S material in a European regional economies class? It can be done... in Barcelona.

A CAR BOMB has exploded 30 minutes ago in Madrid:
A strong explosion has been reported on near a convention center on the outskirts of the Spanish capital, Madrid.

Eyewitnesses told CNN ambulances had rushed to the scene following the explosion.

CNN's Madrid Bureau Chief Al Goodman reported that members of the Spanish royal family were expected later in the day at an arts fair at the convention center, which is in a residential area and near Madrid's airport.

The newspaper El Pais said on its Web site a destroyed car was seen at the site of the explosion, Reuters reported. The newspaper El Mundo said there were light injuries, the news agency added.
Radio and TV networks are reporting 11 slightly injured people; the area had been cordoned off before the blast, after someone claiming to be from ETA called the Basque newspaper Gara alerting of the forthcoming explosion.

UPDATE. A witness is on the radio at the moment, reporting that the police is now cordining off another area surrounding another convention center, the old one, in the Paseo de la Castellana, in the very heart of Madrid's financial district. Too soon to know whether it's a false alarm or it comes after a second phone call alerting of another blast.

UPDATE II. A police spokesman says that the second was a false alarm, and the cordon has been lifted.

Monday, February 07, 2005

SPAIN'S AMNESTY for illegal aliens starts today:
Spain's Socialist government offers an amnesty to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from today despite concerns it could make it an even more attractive destination for migrants.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government says the amnesty will allow it to manage migration. However, its assurances have done nothing to quell the controversy.

Spain is the main gateway to Europe for illegal immigrants. An estimated 800,000 migrants live in the country illegally, but there is no way to know how many will benefit from the amnesty.

The scale of the problem was underlined on Saturday when Spanish authorities rescued 227 African would-be migrants from a decrepit fishing boat drifting off the Canary Islands.

Jose Manuel Soria, head of the local authority in the island of Gran Canaria, wrote in the conservative ABC newspaper on Sunday that the incident showed the drawing power of the amnesty offer -- even though new arrivals cannot qualify.

As I wrote, some European countries are concerned.

CAME BACK five minutes ago from a long meeting in the other side of town, and when checking my blogreader I saw Cori Dauber commenting about this:
Three unidentified assailants seized the Spanish consulate in the Switzerland on Monday, taking three hostages who were later freed, authorities said.

The assailants wounded a security guard, who was then able to escape, said Juerg Mosimann, spokesman for Bern cantonal police. The other two hostages were later freed by police. The three assailants were still in the building but held no more hostages, he said.

"According to our latest information, the hostage situation still isn't over," said Mosimann. "The police are trying to make contact with them."

Three assailants — believed to be armed with knives and a handgun — stormed the consulate in the Swiss capital shortly before 8 a.m., police said.

Their nationalities were not immediately know and Spanish officials said robbery was likely their motive.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said none of the consulate's Spanish staff members were hurt, according to Spanish news agency Efe.
Conflicting reports on the Spanish press: apparently the situation is under control, but I'm not sure if there's still some "assailants" inside. It isn't clear either if the motive was robbery, though it seems likely. I mean, it doesn't matter what Foreign Minister Moratinos says, we already know he has a more than tortured relationship with reality. We will have to trust Swiss police over him, I'm afraid.

Alas, I don't have much time for this right now; it's 2.20 pm and I'm expected for a lunch meeting (yes, that's the usual time around here!). Will be back later, as soon as possible.

UPDATE. The motive is still not clear; apparently the intruders went straight to the safe, probably for blank visas and/or cash, so it could be a plain robbery. However it's not possible to know it at this point, since when Swiss police stormed in, the intruders had vanished. And, as I said, you cannot take Foreign Minister Moratinos at his word: when at 11.30 am he publicly announced that the standoff was over, Swiss police denied it; they didn't enter the building for a couple of hours still. Tortured relationship with reality indeed.

NOBODY SEEMS to remember Afghanistan any longer. Nobody? Well, Arthur Chrenkoff certainly does, and this is why he delivers his ninth roundup of good -and underreported- news coming from the country.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Almost two-thirds of Spaniards believe the government should go to the courts to stop a referendum on near-independence for the Basque country, according to a poll.

And if Basque premier Juan Jose Ibarretxe went ahead with his plan for a referendum even after it was declared illegal by the courts, more than half of Spaniards think the state should prevent it, by using the security forces if necessary, it said on Sunday.

The Spanish parliament overwhelmingly rejected last week Ibarretxe's plan for Basque "free association" with Spain.

In response, Ibarretxe called early regional elections for April 17 and vowed that if he won, he would call a referendum on his proposal for the northern region, which has seen decades of separatist violence.

A referendum without the blessing of the Spanish parliament would be a major affront to Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose Socialist government has sought dialogue with the Basques.

[...] The number of Spaniards supporting these options had climbed sharply in the past month, El Mundo [the newspaper that published the poll -- F.A.] said.

[...] Under pressure from the opposition Popular Party to take a tougher line on the Basques, Zapatero has to tread a delicate line to avoid alienating regional allies in wealthy Catalonia who are also demanding more autonomy from Madrid.

Zapatero's Socialists lack a majority in the national parliament and depend on regional parties to get their legislation through.

THE DIPLOMAD has announced the end of the blog; that's very, very sad news. Hope they change their minds.

Friday, February 04, 2005

IBARRETXE and his secessionist plan for the Basque region merits an editorial on the Financial Times:
Spain is confronting its most difficult Basque crisis in its post-Franco history. This is not because of the Eta separatist group, whose violent activities seem to be waning. Rather, the problem is precisely that separatist demands are coming in peaceful political form, giving them a dangerous allure.

[...] Even if one were to concede Basques the theoretical right to self-determination independent of the rest of Spain - as Québécois have been permitted in Canada - it is far from clear that Mr Ibbaretxe has a mandate to put secession to a vote. His plan passed only with the votes of three ex-Batasuna deputies. It artificially turns cultural identity into a political project, making Basque the official language when a smaller proportion speak it than speak Welsh in Wales, and ignoring all those "Spaniards" that have come to work and intermarry in the Basque country over past centuries. The plan is ambiguous in suggesting some kind of negotiated independence without stating it. It would also deliberately create instability by suggesting the Basque majority municipalities in Navarre could join the Basque free state.

In short, Mr Ibbaretxe is over-reaching himself. It is far better for Basque nationalists to pursue their aims through the ballot box than bombs, and Mr Zapatero's offer of autonomy talks is an appropriate response to this switch. But given what Basques already have, there is little more Madrid can give.
By the way, there's a significant mistake in the editorial when it says, "Mr Aznar's banning of the Batasuna leftwing nationalist party a couple of years ago." This is false: the ban was after a law was passed by Parliament, which was supported by both Aznar's PP and Zapatero's Socialist party, seeking to outlaw any party with ties to terrorist networks. It was confirmed as fully constitutional by the Supreme Court and the ruling confirmed by the Constitutional court.

SPAIN'S AMNESTY for illegal immigrants alarms Europe, the Financial Times writes:
Spain is about to embark on the biggestever amnesty for illegal immigrants in Europe, with consequences that will be felt far beyond its borders.

From Monday, foreigners who can produce a job contract and proof that they have resided in Spain for more than six months will be given one-year residence and work permits.

The amnesty is expected to benefit between 800,000 and 1m immigrants who work in the underground economy - about 6 per cent of the labour force.

The aim is to clamp down on the exploitation of migrant labour - particularly in agriculture, domestic service and construction - as well as to increase tax and social security revenues.

[...] But the amnesty is attracting a flood of would-be immigrants hoping to cash in on Spain's liberal immigration rules. Police on the Spanish border with France say they are turning back bus loads of Romanians and Bulgarians every day.

"They all have fake addresses in Spain, dated back six months, and they are coming in search of jobs," say the police, who last month turned back 10,000 suspected immigrants trying to cross the Pyrénées.

Madrid's immigration amnesty has raised alarm in other European capitals. Spain last year accounted for one-third of net migration into the European Union. For Africans who attempt the perilous 90-mile crossing to the Canary Islands, or brave the currents in the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain is an easy port of entry for travelling further north into Europe.

At a meeting in Brussels last weekend, German and Dutch officials told Consuelo Rumi, Spain's immigration minister, they were worried about the effects of the country's immigrant-friendly policies on Europe as a whole.

"This legalisation process will have consequences for the rest [of Europe] because immigrants will then be able to move on freely to France and Germany," says Otto Schily, German interior minister. Rita Verdonk, Dutch immigration minister, urges Spain to co-ordinate its policies with other EU states.
(via HispaLibertas)

Thursday, February 03, 2005

WILL BE INTERESTING to see whether he'll accept:
The Madrid Club of former Spanish heads of state has invited US President George W Bush to mark the first anniversary of the 11 March terrorist bombings.

The move could be seen as an effort to try to boost the poor relations between Spain and the US, which have not improved since the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq last year soon after the present Socialist government came to power.

It also came as the Spanish daily El Pais reported Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero was considering changing tack on Iraq in order to lift the chill on US-relations.

Zapatero is not thought to be considering re-deploying Spanish troops, but suggesting some aid to Iraq in order to thaw relations with the US.

The Madrid Club has also invited heads of other EU countries and the 15 members of the UN Security Council.

They include Vladamir Putin, the Russian premier, Hu Jintao, the Chinese head of state, the Colombian leader Alvaro Uribe and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Indonesian premier.

UN Secretary General Kofi Anan is known to be attending the ceremony in Madrid to mark what was Spain´s worst terrorist atrocity in which 191 people were killed and 1,500 injured when ten bombs went off on four commuter trains.
Something tells me that he won't.

YEAH, like the law enforcement approach did work like a charm on March 11:
Islamic militants will remain a step ahead of the law as long as the United States upholds its military approach to the war on terror, an expert Spanish judge said on Wednesday.

BASQUE PREMIER calls early polls after the rebuff of his secessionist plan:
The Basque premier brought forward regional elections on Wednesday to revive his stalled plan for virtual independence, piling more pressure on a Spanish government already under fire for being soft on nationalism.

A day after the Spanish parliament crushingly rejected Juan Jose Ibarretxe's plan for "free association" with Spain, the Basque leader called elections for April 17 and vowed to call a referendum on his proposal if he wins.

Such an illegal referendum, without the blessing of Spain's parliament, would be a major challenge for Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose 10-month old government has tried to dialogue with the Basques.

"No-one who calls themselves a democrat can deny our right to decide for ourselves," Ibarretxe told a news conference after an emergency cabinet meeting.
Yes, and no-one who calls himself a democrat can allow the conditions his opponents live in. As I wrote some time ago,
it would be so undemocratic that it wouldn't even pass UN standards for free elections (and that's saying much!). Look guys, I believe people have a right to self-organize the way they want to, as long as they follow the law. And as long as any vote about any proposal is truly free. But you cannot call free an election about an issue whose opponents must have bodyguards 24/7 because they can be gunned down any minute as it has happened is several hundred times (and I mean all opponents with even minor political roles; for example, a councilwoman for the Socialist party who is a janitor in the night shift must work accompanied by armed bodyguards!). Or when people are afraid to speak their minds in public, because if they express any 'not 100% Basque nationalist' idea, some masked guys can go to your home at night and throw in a firebomb. There's several thousand people who have had to move to other parts of Spain in recent years because they simply couldn't resist any longer (wouldn't that fall under the definition of ethnic cleansing?)
Not that he's directly responsible for that but, after all, even though he leads a nominally moderate nationalist party (note 'nominally'), as the regional government chief he has full responsibility over law enforcement -and it's well known that regional Basque police are sometimes 'slow' when they have to act against ETA-. And besides, the secessionist plan could only pass with the 3 votes of Batasuna, a party outlawed and in the official list of terrorist organizations in both the European Union and the US (because of its ties to ETA).

Spain's Socialist government, which right after taking office last April pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq, said it is studying the possibility of training Iraqi police officers in Spain.

It will be seen as a move by Madrid to try to thaw relations with the US, which have not recovered since Spain's withdrawal of troops shortly after the Socialists' shock election victory last year.

Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, appearing before the higher house of the Spanish parliament, told legislators the objective was to help Iraq "consolidate the rule of law."

He said that in addition to police officers, "agents and functionaries" might also receive training in
Of course, being a man with a tortured relationship with the truth (and gaffe-prone, too), he couldn't help lying a little:
He noted that Spain provided extensive technical assistance for Sunday's elections in Iraq.
Yeah, right.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

THE BASQUE SECESSIONIST "Ibarretxe Plan" was discussed, and defeated 313-29 in Madrid's parliament yesterday:
Spain's parliament overwhelmingly rejected a plan early Wednesday to give near total independence to the Basque region, following a lengthy floor debate in which the president of the restive region made the case for the step.

Juan Jose Ibarretxe, the Basque leader, watched as the legislators, including Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, rejected the plan 313 to 29 as unconstitutional and contrary to the will of most Spaniards. There were two abstentions.

"If we live together, we should decide together," Zapatero told Ibarretxe during the 7 1/2-hour session in parliament, which was conducted under tight security at a time of heightened public interest in the issue.

Ibarretxe, the first regional president to be allowed to take part in a national parliament debate, calls the plan the only way to end more than three decades of bombings and assassinations by the separatist group ETA.
To fully comprehend this you have to know that the plan was supported by Ibarretxe's party AND Batasuna, a party outlawed, and in both EU and US official lists of terrorist organizations, for its ties to terrorist group ETA (the assemblymen still keep their seats until the next election because they won them while they were still legal, and cannot be stripped from them). Therefore yes, one can assume that if the plan were passed, violence would end. Just as if you pay a big enough sum to that misterious gentleman with an Italian accent sporting a dark suit, your little restaurant might be safe, if you know what I mean.

Next step? Well, for starters:
Ahead of the crushing no-vote Mr Ibarretxe said in reply to speeches by mainstream party leaders he would press ahead with plans for a referendum in the Basque country on his autonomy scheme, regardless of whether parliament in Madrid rejected it.
But before that,
Ibarretxe called an emergency meeting of the Basque government on Wednesday to discuss the rejection of his plan, amid speculation he would bring forward elections due for May.

"In the coming hours and days many things will be clarified and important decisions will be taken," Juan Maria Atutxa, president of the Basque parliament, told regional radio. "This has only just begun and we have a lot of stages before us."

A referendum would only be held after the regional poll if Ibarretxe is re-elected, nationalist politicians say.

Zapatero is counting on winning that regional election, so the whole thing would be de-activated. However, what he did was to hand Ibarretxe a great campaigning platform, which he will use if he calls for elections today. This is why I wrote that it was a bad decision by Zapatero to choose the parliament to reject the plan. It would have been much wiser to take the issue to the Constitutional court, being as it is -Zap himself says it- a blatantly unconstitutional plan. So the rejection would have been 'technical', legal rather than a politicial one that handles Ibarretxe the possibility of playing victim ("see? the Spaniards crush our ambitions"). Besides, it's a bit of a corruption of the Parliamentary system: since when do parliaments discuss patently illegal issues, even if it's clear they will say no? What's next, discussing the merits of a proposal about the separation of whites and blacks? Zapatero boasts he's tolerant and likes to discuss things rather than saying no on the spot, but dialog over illegal things, especially in parliament, means giving some issues the legitimacy they don't deserve.

Some explanation of this is that, as Reuters says in the previous link, "Zapatero cannot afford to alienate regional allies in wealthy Catalonia, who support the Socialists in power there but are also pressing for far more autonomy from Madrid." So he's really walking the tightrope.

More information: CNN, San Francisco Chronicle (make sure you don't miss this one, because it describes the atmosphere of violence in which any opponent of the Ibarretxe plan has to live in; no vote, no referendum would be really free, it's like a small Sunni triangle!), BBC and the Associated Press.

UPDATE. Rumours confirmed; Ibarretxe has called for early elections, on April 17 (no link yet).