Spanish political graffiti

Graffiti sprayed on a wall near to the car park of the ruins of the Moorish castillo in the nearby town of Lanjarón welcomes refugees (refugiados bienvenidos). We stop to contemplate its significance.

There’s little far right activity in Spain. That’s not to say that racist attacks don’t happen. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which records hate crimes reported by participating states (the majority of European countries), describes 1,285 such incidents in Spain in 2014. There were 52,853 in the UK that year (and a record increase in the weeks immediately before and after the EU referendum).

Clearly there are differences in reporting criteria between countries, which make such comparisons unreliable. And Spain is not without anti-immigrant and anti-refugee groups. But their visibility is limited and they have no electoral influence.

Acting prime minister Rajoy’s right-wing Partido Popular has always been supported by the country’s elite class, known for its anti-foreigner attitudes. But while a new, more populist politics has emerged in the shape of Podemos and Ciudadanos [Earthquakes shake Spanish land and politics] to challenge the traditional left-right consensus (and as I write, Spain still has no government, as the parties continue to negotiate their positions, months after a second general election and a third – at Christmas – looks increasingly likely), no far right organisation has emerged to seek representation nationally or locally.

Órgiva is an example of the tolerance the Spanish have for immigrants. One of the most diverse towns in the country, at least 68 different nationalities were registered at the town hall on the last count. People of many colours and races mingle in the cafes and bars, particularly on market day. As I so often explain to people who ask why I moved here, it reminds me of my beloved Camden Town.

There is also a certain irony to that pro-refugee message near the castillo. The Moors were brutally driven out of Spain by Christians. The parish church of Órgiva was built on the site of the mesquita (mosque) at the beginning of the 16th century. And yet the Spanish are immensely proud of their Moorish history. Indeed, that Moorish bloodline is still evident in the faces of many locals.

I’ve blogged before about how, when someone daubed the anti-communist Good Night Left Side graffiti around the streets, it was quickly reduced with white paint to “good night” [Nationalistic referendums here and there]. No one has tried to cover up “Mi sangre es rojo, mi corazon es izquierda” – my blood is red, my heart is left – sprayed on the side of the butchers. This is a town that has many residents who are proudly working class and socialist, for whom the memory of being the frontline against Franco’s rebels as they came over the Lujar mountain to slaughter entire Alpujarrean villages that stood against them is still raw [Unsettled election, unsettled history].

For us, the most offensive words we see here are the anti-immigrant and refugee headlines of the Daily Mail, Sun and Express. Ironic that newsagents, in displaying these tabloids at their doors because some in the British community here buy them are, in effect, pandering to the reactionary attitudes of another type of immigrant. We hope that hate and division does not follow.

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Like a bullitt in the Sierra Nevada

In the famous car chase scene of the 1968 classic movie Bullitt, Steve McQueen’s Mustang passes the same green VW Beetle at least four times while he chases the black Dodge. This was of course a continuity error, with the chase scenes being intercut and reused. But on a recent trip to enjoy the Sierra Nevada en verano (in summer), just 1.5 hours drive from Órgiva, we became increasingly convinced that the footage of our own trip was somehow being replayed.

I first noticed the 4×4 as I stood on the balcony of our hotel room shortly after checking in. Glancing up the road to where our car was parked, I saw the smart white vehicle with an unusual red number plate pulling in behind it. But then the driver seemed to change their mind, swinging out suddenly and racing down the road into town.

It should be said that Europe’s most southerly ski resort village of Pradollano, high above Granada, does not have a problem with heavy traffic or a lack of parking at this time of year. Our decision to spend a couple of nights at well over 2,000 metres above sea level was down to cheap deals at one of the few hotels open while the ski station markets itself as a mountain biking and hiking centre, along with a need for cooler temperatures. The advertising is working to an extent, but staff working at restaurants dotted around the almost deserted plaza were clearly relieved to have our business.

Moments after seeing the white car, it returns and repeats its actions, almost parking up before quickly gliding away. Pradollano’s main road comes in from the mountain, goes through the town, out again onto the mountain road and circles back in. Even a formula 1 Ferrari at top speed on the streets of Monaco could not complete a lap that fast.

Puzzled, I stay on the balcony. I call my daughter over, and wait. And there it is again, the shiny 4×4 with the red plates, moving in behind our car, then off again. I share my bewilderment, but somehow she hasn’t seen the vehicle, and I begin to doubt my eyes. Am I being bugged by a metaphorical green Beetle?

Next morning, same story. While I stay on the balcony I spot the car several times. It dawns on me that there must be more than one. It stops briefly directly across the road and I note a number on its rear flank. Does it have a driver? Are they watching me?

Finally, sitting at a restaurant as the sun begins to set, we all see the car. In fact we see two together, and the nagging fear that I’ve somehow become the Prisoner’s Number Six, imprisoned in a mysterious village, trapped by balloon-like “rovers” that prevent escape, dissipates.

Quite why there should be two, or maybe more, Pradollanoidentical cars continually driving around this empty pueblo remained a puzzle. We think we spotted a Lexus logo, but the red plates, the numbers on the sides and the lack of anything indicating a model were odd.

As we headed home down the mountain we passed a convoy of UK-plated “camouflaged” cars and lorries, the black and white funky swirls disguising shapes and brands. The trucks were huge, and each carried or towed enclosed steel containers. And finally it dawns on us. The Sierra Nevada in summer, when roads are empty and tourists are few, provides the perfect base for automakers to carry out secretive prototype high altitude testing. Several unidentifiable, future models would have been under wraps in those lorry containers.

Or perwhite carhaps they were on their way to pick up a fleet of enigmatic white 4x4s, whose activities, it turned out, were rather more spied upon (by us) than spying.

 

 

Shellibrating local wildlife

Dog walking is increasingly a struggle. One of our dogs, a neurotic, part podenco (Spanish greyhound-type sighthound), part mastin (calm, giant Spanish agricultural beast), has developed a thing about stagnant ponds. While we’ve had a good amount of rain here in recent weeks, isolated pools of water in the Alpujarras are not a common sight. But for a mutt that got the sighthound, but not the sensible livestock defender bit of the genes, oh, they are everywhere.

The dog emerges from her long sojourns covered in stinking black slime. We try alternative walks, but murky waters are still found. We’re puzzled by the attraction. Perhaps it is ducks, or frogs.

And then the begrimed, evil-smelling creature appears from across an apparently dry, grassy field. It’s agitated: white-tipped tail thrashing, long legs digging, and something in its mouth. Lizards? Grasshoppers? It is the season for all sorts of critters to be lurking in clumps of grass and small bushes. The other dog joins it, doesn’t understand the urgency, runs back to me, and stares, vacantly.

And then the hunting-one decides to run with her find. It’s a stone, perhaps. I demand she drops it and, fearfully (for there are some fairly weirdy creatures here), approach it.

It’s a turtle. A European pond turtle to be exact. On its back. And now a long way from water.

While I’ve had contact with many scoundrels over the years, I so wished that my daughter, a lover of all things reptilian, was with me to touch this one. Tentatively I turned the shell over and waited to discover if the creature was still alive.

It was. And, standing alone in that field, I was extremely reticent about picking it up. Spanish tortugas might be poison spitting, disease carrying, and reportable vermin. But then it looked at me.

So I embarked on the trek back across the field, turtle in hand, throwing stones at the canines and sliding into the side of the standing, muddy mess of a terrapin environment. Not so much a good deed, but an action to try to make better the damaging impact of domestic animals on these fragile ecosystems.

You say peseta…

When our elderly Spanish neighbour who, like many native Órgivians, lives in town but keeps land and animals in the campo (and thinks foreigners are loco for wanting to live in old stone animal barns) presented himself at the house of friends with a message for us – that a goatherd with a couple of hundred beasts had offered 12.5 million pesetas for his property, but we could have it if we paid more, we initially fell about laughing, speculating about how many pesetas could be scraped out of the ancient nooks and crannies of our old cortijo.

Spain joined the eurozone in 1999 – one of the first-wave of countries to do so – fourteen years after it joined the European Union. The euro became the official currency on 1 January 2002 and the transitional dual circulation period, when both currencies had legal tender status but the peseta only as “book money” that had to be converted to euros, ended three months later.

It’s not surprising that for our neighbour’s generation, or even the goatherd’s, the euro has never become the acceptable currency. Indeed the Spanish central bank revealed a couple of years ago that some €1.7bn worth of pesetas was still held by Spaniards. Perhaps those brought up in rural communities such as ours are, even now, using them to make black economy transactions. Though if they are they can’t exchange them for euros except with the central bank.

And of course many Spanish blame “el crisis” – Spain’s economic “great recession” – on joining the euro because of the housing bubble that followed and which burst so spectacularly. The collapse of the Spanish banks revealed irresponsible and predatory subprime mortgage lending – still a major cause of misery and suicide as people lose their homes but, unlike in the UK, continue to have to pay off the debt.

Those who still think in pesetas are also pretty canny with their mental currency converters. They know what the conversion rate was fixed at in 1999. The rest of us are grateful that online versions still exist that don’t simply declare the peseta to be obsolete. For when we considered the implications of living next door to 200 smelly cabras, along with their dogs, our neighbour’s offer suddenly became a lot less funny.

Cabras No

Our sentiment exactly

 

Our water-man confirmed the story. The goatherd intended to build a nave (a warehouse, in the industrial sense of the Spanish word) to house his livestock. The animals would also have the run of the land. “Muy mal” he said, holding his nose and suggesting that we might want to pay the money.

We suddenly felt as though we had woken in a gigantic pool of blood, 200 goat heads placed in our bed as we slept. Our neighbour may not look much like a mafia boss, but it increasingly looked like an offer we could not refuse.

Rapid consultation with other near residents, some of whom have goats overnighting close to them, though not as close as this would be, further convinced us to scupper the goatherd’s plans. Cute as they are, the smell of goats is a taste few people acquire, and what with the horse flies, noise and other delights that would accompany a large herd in small confinement, we might as well abandon our home.

Within hours we learn that our neighbour has rejected the goatherd’s initial offer, it’s been upped by another million pesetas and is about to be accepted. Another consultation with the currency converter reveals he’s pushing close to the official asking price (in euros), albeit a substantially reduced one since the property went on the market two years ago.

We wondered, cynically, having converted pesetas into pounds and it sounding much better, if we might try it in another long-redundant, more over-valued currency to get an even better result. You say peseta, we say Italian lira, perhaps.

And so we find ourselves about to be the owners of nearly 1500 m2 of land with two huge avocado trees, olives, oranges, nisperos (medlar fruit), three chickens, some scabby cats, a trailer (oh what luck, we were planning to buy one of them), a three-roomed casita with no bathroom or kitchen, and an out-building. But even the wise heads of Orgiva’s legal advice and translation service, who helped us in dealing with our neighbour’s determined daughters and the legal paperwork, agreed we had no option.

There are of course bright sides to this predicament. We have learned from this whirlwind process that in Spain, vendors who receive an offer for a rural property which they are inclined to accept are obliged to offer it to their immediate neighbour, especially if the land was once part of the same catastral (piece of land), as ours was. So at the very least, we know our rights have been respected.

And then there’s the strategic benefit of owning land adjacent to ours, given the options it opens up (and closes down), increased water rights at a more sensible time of day than we currently enjoy (see Zeds (or lack of them) and the art of pool maintenance), and finally being shot of a not so easy vecino.

Our daughter, who plays the video strategy game Civilisation, commented that it was a bit like a move where a city state is invaded for tactical reasons to stop someone else having it, and by doing so yet another piece of land is blocked off which could have value to opponents.

And judging from a call we received from the owners of a holiday home the other side of the would-be goat ranch, we might yet be considered local heroes.

Earthquakes shake Spanish land and politics

A series of earthquakes measuring up to 6.3 on the Richter Scale rocked our coastline in the early hours of Monday morning and was heard and felt up in our mountains. Beds shook and the remaining olives on our ancient tree rained down on the roof above our heads.

The quakes’ centre was in the Alboran Sea, between the Spanish mainland near Malaga and the Spanish enclave of Melilla in north Africa and came just days after a series of tremors were felt along the Costa Tropical. It’s a reminder of our proximity to the colliding Eurasian and African plates and that hundreds of people were killed in Granada and Motril in the 1880s during the deadliest earthquakes – a tragedy still “celebrated” in Motril during its annual Día de los Terremotos (Day of the Earthquakes) fiesta.

It’s unlikely that seismic activity here would cause such devastation again. But the predicted political earthquake as a result of December’s general election has certainly put an end to traditional two-party, rotational Spanish politics.

Over a month since the election, Spain is still without a government. PSOE and PP lost significant ground to the anti-austerity Podemos and neo-liberal Ciudadanos – indeed it was one of PSOE’s worst results since democracy returned to Spain in 1977. Manoeuvres to try to form a coalition government continue, while acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has refused the king’s investiture invitation. A PP-Ciudadanos coalition is alternately on and off the table, and even if it does happen it won’t deliver Rajoy an overall majority. Not that Rajoy has stood aside – he hasn’t ruled out accepting another offer from the king.

Meanwhile, PSOE’s efforts to form an allegiance with Podemos, and possibly the United Left or regional Catalan and Basque parties, remain stuck on Pablo Iglesias’ party’s support for a Catalan independence referendum, along with his determination that his MPs take many of the top government posts, including deputy PM.

How either Podemos or Ciudadanos, which both stood on anti-corruption platforms, can contemplate coalitions with the parties most associated with the defrauding of public money and remain credible new political forces remains to be seen. (I am reminded of the newspaper cartoon depicting a conversation between two children: “Vamos a jugar politicos (let’s play politicians)”. “No sin mi abogado (not without my lawyer)”.)

Still, Iglesias and PSOE’s Pedro Sanchez did manage to speak for 20 minutes recently, with the former tweeting that Podemos has an “historic opportunity to be the change”, though his public statements following an earlier meeting with the king, including that the PSOE leader would have him to thank if he became PM, are unlikely to assuage Sanchez’s suspicion.

Whatever the outcome of negotiations – and it may yet be another election after several more months of a government-free Spain – the country’s traditional parties are being forced to face the reality that the Spanish people voted for change (except the trusty Andalucians, who remained as loyal to PSOE as ever) and though they may not achieve it in seismic proportions, they have a right to demand, as IU said, a progressive government “that meets the demands of the social majority and finishes with the disastrous policies imposed by the government of Mariano Rajoy”.

Unsettled election, unsettled history

Andalucian president Susana Diaz continues to try to govern alone after failing to secure a majority in last month’s regional election, in spite of winning the same number of seats as in 2012. Her Socialist party (PSOE) is eight seats short of what it needs to avoid having to negotiate with other parties to pass every piece of legislation.

Anti-austerity, anti-corruption party Podemos, which secured 15 seats, is hardly coalition material for a ruling party that is following an austerity agenda and has three former ministers suspected of involvement in a billion euro fraud case. And the other newcomer to Spanish politics – the right wing Ciudadanos (Citizens), which won nine seats – has also ruled out a formal alliance, even with the conservative Popular Party (PP), which came second but lost 17 seats.

The Spanish media continues to predict that Podemos could hold the balance of power after the general election in November. But given that the Andalucian vote, especially the collapse in the vote of PP (the party of national government), is seen as a strong gauge of the outcome, it is difficult to envisage what sort of coalition Podemos might be a part of.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of voting in Granada province, and particularly in Las Alpujarras, shines a light on the sides taken in our villages and towns during the Spanish civil war.

The people who work the land here do not consider themselves to be anything other than working class – it is uniquely Spanish anarchism. But the terrible experiences of the civil war are, for many people of the Alpujarras, still painfully recent. Here there are estimated to be as many as 25 mass graves containing the remains of Republican or anarchist villagers who tried to resist Franco’s armed rebels who came up to these mountains from the coast. Towns such as Torvizcon were repeatedly attacked and their inhabitants “disappeared”. Órgiva marked a frontline throughout the war and remains proudly anti-Franco.

With a few exceptions, such as the pristine spa town of Lanjarón which narrowly voted PP – perhaps as much because of the relative wealth of its inhabitants through tourism as that it was Nationalist during the war – this remains a staunchly socialist region. PSOE won the majority of Alpujarran municipalities, with Podemos coming second or third in many. And it is unsurprising that while the United Left (IU), which includes the Communist Party of Spain, lost seven seats in the Andalucian parliament, it had a relatively strong showing in many places here.

Take the tiny pueblo of Cañar, from where our internet signal is beamed. IU achieved 6.8 per cent of the vote – that’s eight people in a village with a population of just a couple of hundred. If only those eight could get their hands on that broadband transmitter…

Voting for hope in Greece and Spain

Now that the people of Greece have rejected austerity and voted for a party that wants to renegotiate the country’s debt, Podemos (We Can) – Spain’s anti-austerity party founded last year in the wake of the mass “Indignados” or 15-M movement against inequality and corruption – has been bolstered in its belief that the general election here will go the same way.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias tweeted after the Greek election that the result represented hope and finally the Greeks had a Greek government and “not an Angela Merkel delegate”. He said his party would be celebrating the change in Europe, in Spain and in Greece.

His conviction that Spaniards will choose a similarly new path as the people of Greece have done will be tested in Andalucia earlier than expected. Andalucian president Susana Diaz has brought forward the region’s elections to 22 March after the collapse of her Socialist Party (PSOE) alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), which she accuses of moving to the left in response to the growing popularity of Podemos.

IU’s national leader Alberto Garzón has been trying to distance the party from the Socialists and its Andalucian coordinator general Antonio Maíllo has pushed for a referendum among its members on whether to leave the coalition should the PSOE refuse to push through social reforms to try to tackle growing inequality and poverty in Spain’s poorest region. Andalucia has been governed by the Socialists for more than 25 years, but the party’s rightward shift, along with fraud charges brought against two of its previous regional leaders, have damaged it.

Nationally, Podemos’ showing in the polls is strong. A recent voter intention survey carried out for newspaper El Pais showed it to be ahead of the PSOE, with 28.2 per cent support. While the PSOE may well hang on in Andalucia, the democratizing movement that is sweeping Spain looks set to bring an end to the two-party system at the national elections later this year.

Here in Órgiva, campaigning for May’s municipal elections is underway and reflects the same mood which has fuelled the rise of Podemos. A new platform has been launched which is open to anyone interested in strengthening democratic decision-making processes in the Alpujarras.

Ganemos La Alpujarra (Win the Alpujarra) describes its aims (and apologies for the rough translation), as enabling anyone who believes in “political ecology, social equity and democratic regeneration” a chance to participate in the elections and local institutions.

It calls for the disappearance of “clans, cronyism, patronage and other political ills” and the giving way to a “more honest, more just and more effective management” deserved by the people of La Alpujarra.

My continued engagement with British politics has emails from the Labour Party dropping into my inbox on an almost daily basis. I’ll do my best to return to London to pound the streets in Hampstead and Kilburn before the UK’s general election, but Labour, as well as Spain’s PSOE, needs to heed the lessons that the Greek vote and the mood in Spain, including in our beautiful mountains, offer –  not only are there alternatives to austerity and to two-party systems but that if they’re not given, the electorate will find or create them.