Living in a tiny white Andalucian village deep in the countryside with no policemen as we do, it’s easy to lose your grip on how Spain is actually run, so our visit to Madrid last week was a salutary lesson that “the authorities”, like rats, are always closer to you than you think.
We stayed in the lovely barrio of Las Letras with a dear friend who was the perfect hostess. She shares a flat among gentrified streets between the houses where Lope de Vega and Cervantes lived and died in the seventeenth century. By day we explored the shops, little bars and bistros as well as the fabulous galleries and museums of Madrid, all a short walk away. After dark, on the first evening of our stay we stood and watched an anti fascist protest march policed through the city.
Such marches are part of daily life for the people of Madrid, as financial cuts and rising utility prices bite directly into the living standards of everyone except the rich. It is a truism to remark that the poor always pay for the mistakes of the rich, though in the case of Spain the poor are paying both for mistakes and barefaced theft.
The Spanish conservative party treasurer Luis Barcenas (Barcenas el cabron to his friends) was discovered to have stolen €47 million of Spanish tax payers money and deposited it in a Swiss bank account for use as a Partida Popular (conservative party of Spain – the government) slush fund, providing kick backs and cash-in-brown-envelopes to the needy rich including the Spanish prime minister Rajoy, who is alleged to have received €25,000 undeclared in 2010 while he led the opposition. In January 2013 Rajoy’s name appeared in handwritten copies of secret ledgers kept by Barcenas showing what monthly envelopes of cash were to be handed to which senior politicians. Rajoy has spent the entire year avoiding Las Cortes and confining his defence to media statements. When forced to appear before Parliament, he admitted that mistakes had been made (!) and distanced himself from Barcenas, well known to be his life long friend.
Barcenas is now in jail while an investigation into alleged corruption, money-laundering and tax evasion proceeds, but Rajoy continues to sit pretty since he has an overall majority in parliament, doesn’t have to go to the electorate until 2015, and knows that the opposition labour party (PSOE) are also allegedly mired in corruption. This is background to the street protest we saw.
It was, to say the least, muted. Successive groups of perhaps 150 flanked by armed riot police and their vans, were frequently halted to create gaps so that the procession was broken into little groups. The protesters were law abiding to the point of politeness, a thin, nostalgic chorus of “The workers, united, will never be defeated” rising from the column each time it was stopped and fragmented by the line of police facing it. No one stepping in front of the banner except the conductors. I got the eerie feeling that everyone was in a queue. Spanish queues always look like a mob but everyone knows exactly when it’s their turn – just try pushing in! To add to the weird sight, street cleaning vans were out early. They were also policed, to ensure that they were clearing up at the end of the abortive dustman’s strike. Yellow lights inter-flashing with the blue police lights. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Where did the passion and fury of the ’indignados’ go? What happened to the glorious anti banker operas that would erupt in the bank queues? What about the guerrilla protests, the picketing of parliament or the threat to surround the Cortes?
Like a damp squib it flared up, and the a deep cynical contempt that Spanish citizens feel for their elected representatives suffocated it. In the villages and the capital it seems the Spanish are sick of banging their heads against a wall. Nothing will happen they explain. Corrupt politicians simply deny the evidence smoking guns notwithstanding and get away with everything. It’s not costumbre to put well connected thieves and fraudsters in prison. The British MP’s expenses scandal is spoken of warmly as the correct way to deal with these people.
This is most dangerous for democracy – the feeling that it doesn’t work, that it is “impractical”, or most dangerous of all the cant of Franco, coining Montesquieu, that southern Europeans are “unsuited” to democratic governance.
Spain lacks a historical reference point for the seizing of liberty. After 1792 when France sliced off the heads of parasites of the church and aristocracy, it sent Napoleon not to help Spain in its liberation struggle, but to set up his brother as a tin pot dictator. Spain is well acquainted with dictators all through its history. What totalitarian voice might seek to fill the present cynical apathy and what “strong man” waits in the wings for the death of Juan Carlos and the possible end of the current constitution? Fascism, at least in name is unfashionable at the moment but like a rat, is always nearer that we think.
And Spain still waits to be de-Nazified. The defeated Spanish democrats in 1945 expected that after the allies had got rid of Hitler and hanged his peons, they would come and do the same to Franco and co. To their shame they did not. They regarded fascist Spain as a bulwark against Soviet expansion. They abandoned the democratic resistance, leaving it to fight a rear guard action in the hills of Andalucia not knowing that the cause was already lost. Franco was free to murder opponents right up to his death. It was a double betrayal - Spanish democrats were ignored by America and democratic Europe before the second world war and deserted by them after it.
Worse, the fascist administration of Spain – a great army of petty beaurocrats, lawyers, teachers, judges, military officers high and low were left in 1975 with their fascist education intact and their fascist attitudes unchallenged. They continued to rule Spain out of necessity because there was no one else. Those they trained and educated are alive and well today all over Spain from the landless peasant to the high court judge telling anyone who will listen that Franco made the trains run on time and not only trains. They misremember repression as a state of order. Without a process of truth and reconciliation, their totalitarian yearnings lie in the air like a virus.
The Partida Popular, the present party of government, is described as a centre right party but carries the distinct whiff of Franco about it. The law of “Historical memory” designed as a first faltering step towards truth and reconciliation by the last government, is being repressed by this one. Panicked by the level of street activity in the capital, in denial regarding its self evident corruption and keen to keep its collective nose in the trough, it has hastily drafted a “Citizens Safety Law” coming into effect in the New Year. Into a predictable mix of measures against dangerous animals and anti social behaviour are laws called “Offences against Spain”. Such catch-all laws were common in Spain under the fascist dictatorship.
Broadly it will be an offence to act or speak against the Spanish state, whatever that means. Specifically Jorge Fernandez Diaz, government minister for the interior tells us that “Offences against Spain” will include any public act such as shouting or carrying placards “that are harmful or abusive of Spain or any region” during a protest or demonstration. Other offences include wearing a hood or otherwise disguising yourself during a protest, being rude to a policeman or taking a photograph of a policeman or ignoring the instructions of a policeman. Fines have also been fixed for picketers in a strike who prevent others from going to their jobs and people who prevent judicial officers from carrying out evictions.
As every democrat knows, democracy is not just about voting. The right to gather on the street, the right to protest, to speak your mind in public and the right to strike are democratic liberties every bit as important as voting and often conveniently forgotten by the elected.
There is hope. The move has galvanised the Spanish opposition outside of parliament. Judge, attorney and police associations, as well as academics point out that Spain has one of the lowest crime rates in Europe. The police themselves report that of more than 4,000 street demonstrations held in Madrid last year, there were only ten cases of disorderly conduct. Even the police are against these laws.
Historically in Spain the army clears out corrupt democratic government at the point of a gun and “cleanses” it by means of repression and dictatorship. Last time the army tried that was in 1981 when 200 of them rushed the Cortes and held parliament hostage. The King became a real king that day. As head of the armed forces he went on television to denounce the coup, sacked the generals and had them arrested. As far as I’m concerned, he can shoot as many elephants as he likes.