Monday, March 12, 2007

Rioja, flamenco y crispación

It was an unexpectedly sumptuous and enjoyable weekend around Madrid and its environs over the last few days, with free-flowing Rioja and much fine Spanish food. My Haitian friends and I spent an enjoyable Saturday lunch with the owners of the Aldea Santillana retreat, with the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Central rising in the distance. The afternoon concluded with a visit to the colonial town of Buitrago de Lozoya and a stroll over its finely preserved old city walls as the sun was setting and in the evening, following a rest and a bit of reading, we sampled some of the movida - the perpetual partying lifestyle that Madrid is so famous for - in the streets along the Plaza Santa Ana, including a stop at the beautifully preserved bar Viva Madrid.

Sunday saw a day of Spanish culture, co-promoted by Guillermo Fesser, the co-host of Madrid’s hugely popular Gomaespuma radio show, who has co-founded an organization to help promote indigenous musical and artistic traditions here. Commencing with a many-hours long lunch at a finca outside of the capital that included spontaneous (and highly energetic) outbreaks of flamenco guitar, singing and dancing, there was interesting conversation with a wide cross-section of Spanish and European political viewpoints. The evening ended up with an outstanding concert of modern flamenco music by the singer Diego el Cigala in the small industrial city of Guadalajara. One could get used to this.

As we were enjoying ourselves, though, all was not quiet in Spain. On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Madrid to protest the decision of the government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to allow José Ignacio de Juana Chaos (aka Iñaki de Juana Chaos), a leader of the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) Basque separatist group convicted of killing 25 people, to serve out the remainder of his sentence under house arrest. De Juana had been on a 115 day hunder strike that he threatened to continue until death if he was not freed. Despite supposedly having initiated a permanent ceasefire as a pre-condition of becoming involved in peace talks with Zapatero’s government, the ETA exploded a bomb at Madrid airport on 30 December, killing a pair of Ecuadorian immigrants, and, unlike Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, Juana Chaos has never expressed any remorse for his blood-drenched past. The image of Miguel Ángel Blanco Garrido, a politician in the Basque region kidnapped and murdered by the ETA in 1997, one of the group's more than 800 victims, was prominent among the demonstrators.

It is a misstep that has been adroitly, and perhaps a touch cynically, exploited by the opposition conservative party, the Partido Popular, that has seemed to effectively be tapping into a very real well of outrage here that I heard expressed by people of various social classes and political stripes in my travels around the capital. Many are wondering aloud what the ramifications will be for Zapatero’s Partido Socialista Obrero Espanola (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party or PSOE) in Spain’s upcoming municipal elections. A British friend of mine, a keen observer of Spanish politics for over 20 years and living in the southern city of Málaga, wrote to me that, although he felt that the PP was “making dirty politics out of trying to sabotage the peace effort” by their rather strenuous attacks on Zapatero’s government, “releasing de Juana Chaos into house arrest may have been a major political blunder, if the PP is able to use it to convince a majority of voters Zapatero is someone who gives into terrorists and lets unrepentant mass murderers out on the streets.”

In Spain, as elsewhere, it appears that politics is a complicated business.

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