Friday, September 26, 2014

A Parliamentary Circus

Sessions of the Catalan Parliament are sometimes (maybe always) televised, but I never watch them.  It’s enough for me to see clips and read or hear the summaries of what went on.  But today was different.

Today, Jordi Pujol, former President of the Generalitat of Catalunya testified at a special session – an enquiry.  I believe there are parliamentary enquiries and parliamentary investigations and this was the former.  It was meant to clarify details pertaining to President Pujol’s confession of 25 July when he announced that ever since 1982, he has had a large amount of money – an inheritance from his father – in an Andorran bank and that this money and this account were never declared to the Spanish tax authority.

I admit that I didn’t think this was as serious an offense as many people here did.  I think at least half the population here has bought or sold a property where part of the transaction was in “black” money.  This is money that is paid but is not included in the deed.  It lowers the purchase tax and property tax base for the buyer and lowers the capital gains (if any) for the seller.  Until recently, it was standard procedure for the notary to leave the room for a few minutes during any property transaction so that the black money could be paid without his “knowing.”  Those who haven’t engaged in a property transaction with black money have been party to shops and workmen (contractors, electricians, etc.) who ask you if you want a receipt.  If you do, you pay IVA (sales tax) and the transaction will be recorded.  If you don’t want a receipt, you don’t pay IVA and the transaction, well, it never took place. 

I’m not saying this to excuse President Pujol.  I expect political leaders that I vote for to be honest, and to pay their taxes.  I am just trying to put it into perspective.  As far as I’m concerned, what is serious is if a politician engages in influence peddling, taking bribes, or doctoring books for personal gain.  There is so much of that going on that it boggles the mind, and dozens of such cases pending in the courts. Tax evasion? Well that’s a national hobby in many countries.

The session began with President Pujol giving, in the allowed twenty minutes, his explanation.  He went into a brief the history of how his father made his fortune, how he decided to go into politics rather than follow his father’s footsteps into the business world, about the inheritance and why his father had put the money in a bank in Andorra ending with some vague explanation of why he kept it that way all these years.

Each political party had designated one person who would question President Pujol and each had ten minutes to do that.  The questions would all be stated and once all six parties had finished, Pujol would respond.

The questioning started out very civilized, even though the first up was L’Esquerra Republicana (the Republican Left), hardly an ally of Pujol’s CIU.  With all the respect you would expect due a former head of state (Pujol was President of the Generalitat of Catalunya for 23 years and is considered by many as a sort of father of modern Catalunya) the rep asked why all of a sudden, Pujol, after more than 30 years, decided to confess on 25 July that he had money in an undeclared foreign bank account.  How much, exactly was the inheritance, by what means had the amount grown to the large amount that currently exists, had he added anything to the account during those years, and if so, where did that money come from and could he present wills, bank records, etc. to substantiate the answers to these questions?

The second party was the Socialists and they asked, in a similar tone and with the same respect, more or less the same questions as L’Esquerra had.

Then it was the turn of the PP (The Catalan section of the national PP party that governs Spain).  Their representative Alicia Sanchez Camacho, in a very belligerent tone, began to hammer questions at President Pujol.  These questions were not limited to the inheritance and the Andorran bank account, they covered questions about every political scandal that has happened in Catalunya for the last 30 years.   There was no pretense of respect for the man who was a former President.  It was one of the rudest displays I’ve ever seen. 

Beyond digging up all manner of irrelevant scandals, apparently done simply so that the Spanish news could utilize damning news bites, the PP rep also made reference to the Catalan independence movement and the plans for a referendum.  This has been a PP strategy ever since Pujol confessed.  They keep trying to smear the independence movement with scent of scandal.  But President Pujol has had nothing to do with the independence movement.  He was not a declared independentist when he was in government and has not been active in the movement since it has gained momentum, except to say he supports it. 

Most of what the PP rep was talking about made no sense and had nothing to do with the subject at hand.  In any case, this wasn’t a judicial proceeding and she’s not a prosecutor.  Her questions were accusations and were delivered rapidly, like a barrage from a machine gun.  Never mind that she is involved in a scandal and has refused to come and testify before a similar Parliament enquiry.  The holier than thou, the more corrupt.

The C’s, another right wing group followed suit with disrespect and irrelevant questions, digging up pretty much the same list as the PP had done, although with slightly less ferocity (they aren’t as powerful and so are probably less corrupt).

Both Camacho and the C’s rep accused Pujol repeatedly of having lied and of not being trustworthy.  They said whatever he said, he could not be believed.  In that case, was there any reason for him to respond to their questions?

The Greens managed to be rude without being belligerent.

And then there was CUP.  I’ve never gotten it entirely straight who these people are.  They are young, they refuse to wear suits and always show up in t-shirts, usually with some slogan or other.  In their typical anarchist style, their rep made a stab at denouncing corruption but didn’t add any valuable question to the list that President Pujol might respond to.  Then they all marched out before the session ended.

CIU is President Pujol’s own party.  They are naturally dismayed and sad that this situation has come to pass.  They would like similar explanations to what the first two parties asked so that the public can be reassured (and so that they might extricate themselves from the muck).  And they denounced the irrelevant and irreverent performances by PP and C’s, saying this was an enquiry, not an opportunity to further Spain’s anti-independence stand or create an info-bite/photo opportunity for the press.

President Pujol was very angry, and I can see why.  He is the former President of the Generalitat, an elected position he held for 23 years.  He was invited to testify and he accepted the invitation and came.  He was not required to do so.  It’s not even clear why he confessed in the first place:  He had not been accused of anything by anyone.  Today, he expected to be treated civilly and he was not.  The session had turned into a circus and yet he was its protagonist.  He spoke for some minutes and was so heated up and so angry that I was worried he would have a heart attack.  The man is 84 years old.  After fielding questions (some of them hardly even pretending to be questions) he didn’t answer any of  them.  And I don’t really blame him.  Who knows if the inexcusable behavior of PP and C’s caused him not to respond to questions, or if he was shrewd enough to use that as an excuse.  But frankly, I don’t think anyone in his position should have to endure the kind of public treatment he received today.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Vote Yes or No

Scotland has said No to independence.  The vote was close, but not that close – about 55-45.  What was really impressive is that more than 85% of the Scots came out to vote. 

Although I find the result disappointing, it isn’t surprising.  The polls had predicted a No vote since the beginning of the campaign, and the Yes gained significant favor only near the end.  When the Yes seemed to be so close it might surpass the No, the British government kicked in and started offering all kinds of concessions (you could say bribes) so that Scotland wouldn’t leave.

Britain didn’t have to allow this referendum.  That it was given an OK was the result of negotiations between the Scottish and British governments after the Scottish National Party won the last election on the platform promise that it would hold a referendum on independence.  This meant that the people of Scotland wanted to vote and the British government acted accordingly. 

It’s possible that David Cameron agreed to it because he didn’t believe the Yes had a chance in hell.  He certainly became nervous when it looked like it might win.  But whatever his reason, he has said that he gave his approval because he believes in democracy.

I was disappointed but not surprised this morning when I turned on the news to learn that the Yes vote had lost.  That report was followed by the hypocritical response of Spanish President Rajoy.  That shouldn’t have been surprising either but somehow, I can never get used to the level of lies and hypocrisy that he and others of his government utter on an ongoing basis.  Does his public listen and think about what he is saying?

People can be for or against Scottish independence, or Catalan independence, and anyone else’s independence.  There are some valid arguments for either side (and some bogus ones).  It is not acceptable, however, for a government of what is supposed to be a democratic country to tell its citizens that they cannot vote, as Spain does, and in the name of democracy.

Rajoy congratulated Scotland on deciding to remain part of the United Kingdom and of the European Union.  He said bigger is better and stronger, and that it was good not to break up the UK or the EU.

But Scotland’s seceding from the UK didn’t necessarily leaving the EU.  In fact, Rajoy was one of the first to say that if Scotland secedes it would be thrown out of the EU.  There is no EU statute that covers the eventuality of a member state breaking up into smaller pieces.  When the time comes that one does, it will be up to the EU to decide how to handle it.  Clearly Spain will want the new country thrown out.  Even though it says that it is important for the EU to remain big and strong.

Rajoy also said Spain would block the entry of Scotland if it applied for membership to reenter the EU.  I’m confused.  He says that the EU is better and stronger when it is bigger, and he wouldn’t want to see Scotland leave, but if it did, he would block its reentry. 

While Rajoy was congratulating Scotland on avoiding the “grave problems of separation” he might also have mulled over the fact that these people had avoided these grave problems by VOTING.  He was congratulating them on their VOTE.

If President Rajoy and the Spanish government think that Spain and Catalunya are better off together, and that the EU is better off with Catalunya remaining a member, etc., he should allow the Catalans to vote on the question and do what Britain did – campaign for his position.  That is what democracy is about.  But then Britain has had a long relationship with democracy while in Spain it is a relatively new concept which was born after the death of Franco in 1975.

You see, the argument in Spain right now isn’t about whether or not Catalunya should become independent.  The argument is about whether or not the Catalans can vote.  Because if they can vote, they can vote either Yes or No, and that’s a whole other issue.

Unlike in Scotland, in Catalunya there has been marked public support not only for voting on a referendum but for voting Yes on independence.  What is interesting is that whereas there was significant support for a Yes two years ago, the numbers have grown considerably.  Economics has something to do with it, the suppression of Catalan language and culture has something to do with it, the stripping of autonomic governing powers has something to do with it, and possibly most of all, the constant No, No, No to everything, most importantly the right to vote, has a lot to do with it.  When it comes to utilizing public relations to win confidence and goodwill, Spain is at a complete loss.

Some people worry that the No vote in Scotland will have a negative impact on the Yes vote in Catalunya.  But I think the Catalans have taken note of how Scotland has been treated by Britain, and when they compare that to the treatment they have received from Spain, it will only serve to increase their determination to vote and to vote Yes. 

Cartoon from The New Yorker    

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Video of the V for Vote Demonstration

It is normal that people should be able to vote in a democratic country.  Spain is threatening Catalans with criminal charges if they try to vote on the referendum for independence on 9 November.  This lovely video shows what kind of people made up the 1.8 million people who came to Barcelona on 11 September to demonstrate for their right to vote.  As the song says, "We are not soldiers, not guerillas, we are regular people, men and women on the street".

Click here to see the video.  If you like it, please share it with your friends so that other people can see what a peaceful demonstration looks like.

Friday, September 12, 2014

V for Vote

This is a graphic image
Why do I love Catalunya?  Because two grassroots citizen groups (working together and both led by women) can organize a logistically complicated demonstration of 1,800,000 people.  And because those 1,800,000 people care enough to make the effort to get out and come to Barcelona, some traveling hours to get there.  And when they get there they are civil, peaceful, celebratory, and don’t even leave any garbage behind when they head back home!

11 September is Catalunya’s National Day – kind of like the 4th of July, but different.  It is different because on 11 September 1714, Catalunya LOST their war.  Together with England, they had supported the Habsburgs, the Spanish had supported the Bourbons, England left Catalunya in the lurch, and Catalunya ended up becoming part of the Spanish kingdom with a Bourbon king.  They still have a Bourbon king, but that’s another story.

Last year’s 11 September demonstration was a 400-kilometer-long human chain, stretching from France to the Valencian border.  One million six hundred thousand people participated.  That was also a great logistical achievement.

This year they opted for something more condensed, but even more complicated – the letter V formed along two major boulevards that run through Barcelona at an angle and yes, meet in a V.  The letter V stood for vote, “voluntat” which means will (as in the will of the people), and victory (for when the independence vote wins in the referendum). 

An actual aerial photo

 But it was more than the letter V, it was also an 11-kilometer senyera (the name of the Catalan flag).  The senyera has four red stripes on a yellow background.  People signed up in advance and were assigned a section to report to, organized so that those who came from the same area would be in the same general area on the V.  They all wore either red or yellow t-shirts.  The sections were broken into smaller sections – four of red and five of yellow.   Here is a time lapse of how a section formed up.

As in the case of the two previous years, the culmination of the formation would take place at exactly 17:14 to commemorate the infamous event, this time on its 300th anniversary.

The two boulevards were the Gran Via and the Avinguda Diagonal.  It would run a little more than 11 kilometers.  There was organized entertainment, including 54 colles (teams) of castellers (the people who make the human towers) and big screens along the route, with the main stage located at the vertex.  There, at exactly 17:14, a young woman cast a symbolic ballot.  She will turn 16 on 9 November, the date set for the referendum, and she will be able to vote for the first time, 16 being the minimum age set for this special ballot.

Two thousand buses were chartered for the V and 100,000 cars entered the area, bringing people from every town and village in Catalunya.   At about 3 pm they closed the central part of the city to all traffic, and people began to come to their assigned places along the V.

The Spanish government says it will not allow the referendum to take place.  They hide behind the Constitution, although there are many legal experts who say that in fact, the Constitution does not prohibit a referendum.  Pretty much on a daily basis, the Spanish President or someone from his political party (the PP) says that in a democracy, you must obey the law and the law says you cannot vote on a referendum.

But democratic rights take precedence over the law.  Constitutions are there to protect people’s democratic rights, not limit them.  There are such things as bad laws.  It used to be the law that only men could vote, that blacks had to ride at the back of the bus, and in Germany, that Jews had to wear yellow armbands.  Constitutions are not carved in stone.  If, in fact, the Spanish constitution prohibits people from voting, then it needs to be changed.  The American constitution has 33 amendments.  The Spanish could use one.  But the Spanish don’t want one.  They could allow the vote.  They don’t want to.  They’re scared.  Very scared.  When Catalunya declares its independence, Spain will lose its goose that lays golden eggs.

The Catalan PP party, together with two other small parties, also held a demonstration yesterday countering the big V for voting on a referendum.  Their demonstration was in Tarragona.  I heard them say how divisive the independence movement was, how divisive the demonstration for the right to vote was (if you can vote, that naturally means you can vote either Yes or No), and how there was a silent majority that doesn't want either. 

A very small silent majority in Tarragona

The Catalans just held the biggest demonstration ever held in Europe.  The Catalan V received support from groups around the world.  It was also covered in the press around the world.  Scotland will vote on its referendum sooner, although it doesn’t seem to have the support for independence that the Catalan referendum has.  The Basques are watching with a new light in their eyes.  The Flemish in Belgium are taking note.  There are changes afoot here in Europe making it a very exciting place to live right now.

Supporters in Boulder, Colorado


In the Italian Press

Bikers make their own V in Vic before heading
or should I say roaring off to Barcelona

Muriel Casals and Carme Forcadell (in red shirts)
the women who lead the two grassroots organizations

All photos were taken from online media sources

Friday, September 5, 2014

Spain's Censorship

On today's mid-day news there was the surprising story of censorship in the heart of Europe.  The book Victus by Albert Sánchez Piñol was to be presented today at the Cervantes Institute in Utrecht following yesterday's presentation in Amsterdam.  However, one day in advance, the event was cancelled by instruction of the Spanish Embassy in Holland.

I haven't read the book -- it's about the fall of Barcelona in September 1714 which resulted in Catalunya becoming part of Spain.  It's been translated into 30 languages.  The blurb on Amazon says: "A #1 international bestseller reminiscent of the works of Roberto Bolaño, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and Edward Rutherford—a page-turning historical epic, set in early eighteenth-century Spain, about a military mastermind whose betrayal ultimately leads to the conquest of Barcelona, from the globally popular Catalonian writer Albert Sánchez Piñol.... A sweeping tale of heroism, treason, war, love, pride, and regret that culminates in the tragic fall of a legendary city, illustrated with battle diagrams, portraits of political figures, and priceless maps of the old city of Barcelona, Victus is a magnificent literary achievement that is sure to be hailed as an instant classic."

It seems the Spanish government thinks the book has political implications.  They should be reminded that (1) books are allowed to have political implications, (2) it's a NOVEL, and (3) this is modern Europe in 2014 where censors are not part of the setup.  The Catalans may bring a complaint of censorship to the European Court.

In the video below (in Catalan) the commentator says that first the Spanish government prohibits the presentation of this book and then it asks why Catalans want a separate state.  Catalunya lost that war in 1714 and lost its independence.  It is hoping to regain it in 2014. 

You can buy the book from my Amazon store by clicking here
El Periodico article about the cancellation of the book presentation (in Catalan)

Editorial comment on the cancellation of the book presentation (in Catalan)