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Gambling on the box

March 23, 2009

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There is a worrying trend spreading virus-like on Spanish television. Having no Sky or similar facility, I don’t know if the trend is spreading abroad, or even if it has come to this country from elsewhere.

As though there weren’t enough problem gambling in Spain, now we have every television channel and lots of radio stations offering quick riches at all times of the day and night – there are even whole programmes dedicated to it, mostly in the small hours but not all. Send a text message to such-and-such a number and you can win anything from €1000 to €500,000 – or x amount per month for the rest of your life, or for a year. Easy, isn’t it?

The catch words are ‘you can win’. No guarantee that you will. All you’re doing is taking part in a lottery. Each message will cost you well over €1, depending, I suppose, on the prize money.

That is as much gambling as poker, El Gordo or a slot machine. Unlike these, though, there is no legislation in Spain to control it. According to El País, the TV stations’ advertising income has plummeted and they are taking advantage of a legal vacuum.

The organization that is supposed to control gambling in Spain is the Loterías y Apuestas del Estado (LAE) but it classifies text message gaming as a competition and thus allows it without regulation.

There is a serious gambling addiction problem in Spain – not surprising when every bar has at least one slot machine and there are so many ‘official’ ways to do gamble: lottery, pools, specials, etc. And then there is online gambling, which, according to JARCA, a self-help problem gamblers organization very active in the Campo de Gibraltar, is creating more addicts than ever. Add these to the desperation of unemployment and you have a bomb. And we won’t even go into Bwin sponsoring Real Madrid on their shirts.

Gibraltar, too, is a major international online gambling centre, confirmed by a quick look through Google, where you will find all sorts of juicy get rich quick schemes. Most of them, though, have a link to some sort of self help organization such as Gamblers Anonymous, that they refer to in a miniscule section variously titled as ‘Social Responsibility’.

Compulsive gambling is an illness and recognized as such by the World Health Organization. It is the same as, say, alcoholism or drug addiction and has much the same results.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2009

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Terrorists are back in the headlines. We’ve just heard of two attacks by the ‘Real’ IRA in Northern Ireland. On the inner pages of a paper, we read about Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Israel, etc. etc. We even read about ‘non-terrorist’ attacks in the US and in Germany, which by virtue of the madness of their perpetrators, create terror nevertheless.

But today, March 11, marks the fifth year since the largest terrorist attack ever in Europe (unless you count wars, which are another form of terror): the attack by Islamic terrorists on commuter trains in Madrid. One hundred and ninety-two people were killed, hundreds were injured and millions still remember it.

Today, March 11, should have been a day of remembrance, which for the more direct victims it surely is. But the politicians chose otherwise. At ceremonies held at various points along the route the trains took that fateful day, politicians laid flowers, made speeches and appeared in photos that will make the front pages. The trouble is that the PSOE chose not to appear at the official ones in protest against a decision by the PP (in government in Madrid) to conclude an investigation into spying on itself. What the hell has one thing to do with the other?

Today, March 11, at a time when unity in remembrance and as tribute to the victims should be the objective, politicians showed yet again that their only aim is self-interest. Even the various Victims of Terrorism groups in Spain, with their members going back into history but also including the more recent, are divided along political lines, choosing to attend separate ceremonies.

Shame on them.

(C) Alexander Bewick 2009

Seseña

The recent arrest of the Mayor of Alcaucín, Málaga, on corruption charges that include allowing building on terreno rústico, points the spotlight at a problem that is and has been recurrent certainly on the coasts if not all over Spain for a number of greedy years. Most of the buyers of holiday or retirement homes in these places are expats looking for a place in the sun. By expats I mean of any nationality, though in the most recent case in Alcaucín, they were mostly British.

The Spanish media is full of headlines on the subject. In Sunday’s edition of El País, an in depth analysis of this case had a separate item titled: Los residentes extranjeros, principales compradores (Foreign residents, the main buyers) in which the first paragraph reads: “They came to Spain for the sunshine and a garden they couldn’t afford in their home country. Their ignorance of the law and a lack of scruples on the part of builders, intermediaries and public officials did the rest.”

The article quotes a British buyer, “To us, rústico means rustic, of the countryside, not a synonym for land that can’t be built on.” And therein lies the crux.

The Junta de Andalucía and eight municipalities in the Almanzora area of Málaga, which contains Alcaucín, have counted over 3,000 homes built on terreno rústico an official designation that means You Can’t Build on It / Green Belt / No, No, No – or any other such approximation. But then, if your builder or developer knows his way around your local Town Hall, he may well have built on what is ‘about to become’ urbanizable land. How does he know that?

Many if not most of the smaller municipalities in Andalucía and other ‘sunny’ places, are operating under a Plan General de Ordenación Urbana (PGOU in it Spanish acronym, roughly translatable to General Urban Ordination Plan – or Town Planning Regulations) that dates back to 1987 or thereabouts. Things have changed since then, of course, particularly during the Aznar years in government -but not always- when developers appeared to be able to do whatever they liked with few consequences that couldn’t be settled with a little finesse. The result is plain to anyone who has ever seen those vast developments on what would otherwise be open countryside. The photo that illustrates this article is a prime example in Seseña, Toledo, where there isn’t even a coastline and the massive development has naturally run into all kinds of trouble in the present economic climate. We don’t know how many expats might have bought there, but that, too, was built on a PGOU that is ‘in the process of change’, a change that has been conveniently a-changing since the 1980s but that allows for hefty ‘commissions’ to be had from those same developers and builders, many of whom are now in jail, or should be.

One question arises about these purchases, one that has arisen all too often over the years: When was the last time you bought a property in Britain (or anywhere else in the northern part of the EU, for that matter) without a proper survey being done beforehand? It is true, though, that a survey in Spain can be extremely dicey: Is the surveyor being paid by the developer? Are the proper documents easily available from the Town Hall? Can you trust the surveyor, and if you do, can you understand what he says? And if you’re working through an estate agent, how much do you know about him or her?

(c) Alexander Bewick 2009

The need to be right

February 16, 2009

Montesquieu Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755), better known simply as Montesquieu, wrote: “I believe that the thing above all which ruined Pompey was the shame he felt to think that in having elevated Caesar the way he did, he had lacked foresight. He accustomed himself to the idea as late as possible; he neglected his defence in order not to avow that he had put himself in danger; he maintained to the Senate that Caesar would never dare to make war; and because he had said it so often, he went on saying it always.” (My italics).

The French philosopher was talking about the Roman Empire, but the same could be applied to, say, Stalin regarding his continuing to purge his supposed enemies long after it was strictly necessary, if it ever was; or to Hitler, who was admittedly mad by then anyway, but carried on sending in ever greener troops into evidently lost battles; or to the Nazi extermination camp guards, who went on torturing and gassing their victims long after the end of World War II had been announced. It might also be applied, then, to just about anything that goes on in Iraq or Afghanistan, and certainly to Guantánamo. If you say it often enough, it becomes automatic and you dare not stop. Hence the need to be right.

What is it about human nature that makes us need to be right? Even in the pettiest of arguments we so often sound like children: “No, it isn’t!” “Yes, it is!” Does repetition become a ‘habit’ then? Does the need to be right become that, too?

We know that the perpetuation of a lie can easily turn it into a ‘reality’, at least in the minds of those who hear it and often in the minds of those who tell it. It is difficult, sometimes, to separate a truth from a lie in our own minds; it is even more difficult to do so in the public mind. Propagandists and advertising agencies know this all too well.

I’m veering off target somewhat but if the above is true, then our own need to be right, when subjected to sufficient repetition, automatically dismisses reason. A matter of not seeing the forest for the trees. Or a matter of false pride: I daren’t back down now, even if I am wrong.

Where does the need to be right lead us? Read the papers: corruption at all levels of society (as I write, the US has just ‘uncovered’ a massive fraud with payments for war material and humanitarian supplies in Iraq that is apparently larger even than the Madoff financial scandal – in itself a good example of the perpetuation of a lie); politicians who refuse to resign even when they’ve been found guilty in court (La Línea’s Mayor says he was not sentenced to resign, while the corruption scandals involving the PP in Madrid have elicited the oft-repeated ‘witch hunt’ remark from their leader Rajoy); and so on and on ad nauseam.

I’m right, of course.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2009

207million

Here are a couple of interesting calculations. The US is debating whether to hand over another $700 billion (let’s get those zeros right, we’re talking about $700,000,000,000) to the banks. Forget the $500 billion they’ve already handed over. The world is inhabited by 6,700,000,000 people, give or take a few million born while I’m writing this. Divide the US banks’ $700 billion by the number of inhabitants and you get about $104 million per inhabitant. That’s perspective.

So let’s do the same for Spain (you can do your own maths for whatever ‘developed’ country you like if you have the figures). The population of Spain at the end of 2008 was 46,063,511. The amount of money Zapatero is handing over to the banks so far is €30,000,000,000. Divide the money among the inhabitants (we wish!) and you get €652,000,000 per inhabitant. That’s perspective, and enough to pay a mortgage or two. It would be handy to all those thrown out of their jobs by greedy companies taking advantage of the Crisis (yes, it has to be in caps).

Better not even try doing any of these figures for the banking executives’ bonuses, it would be too depressing…

(c) Alexander Bewick 2009

As drunk as a judge

January 19, 2009

Judge Esther Cunningham The story is out in Britain about Deputy District Judge Esther Cunningham (photo), who had to be escorted from court after kissing a solicitor, swearing at an usher and insulting a prosecutor while ‘fortified’ with brandy. This from a disciplinary tribunal that ‘found it difficult to determine the correct sanction’, according to The Telegraph.

Apparently, Cunningham caused uproar at a hearing in November, at which she was appearing as a solicitor, swaying and clutching a table to steady herself while interrupting proceedings. She also appeared drunk during a legal training course which she was conducting and spoke openly about wanting to punch the chairman of her legal governing body. Cunningham, 54, was banned from practising law for six months after admitting a series of charges including bringing the profession into disrepute. Six months in ‘purgatory’ might make this judge consider the fact that she needs help.

You don’t hear about drunk judges in Spain. Maybe there aren’t any.

On the other hand, you hear about insulting disciplinary proceedings against judges who fail to serve arrest orders on convicted paedophiles. In one notorious case, Sevilla Judge Rafael Tirado was fined a mere €1500 (half the maximum fine, as set by his colleagues) -and never suspended from his courtroom- for failing to make sure that the alleged murderer of five-year-old Mariluz Cortés was sent to jail on prior charges of molesting his own daughter. Tirado has appealed the fine. His court secretary, however, was suspended ‘without salary’ for two years, even though the ultimate responsibility belongs to the judge, who is the secretary’s boss.

juzgados Meanwhile, the judges’ ‘union’ is threatening to strike all over Spain, rightly alleging that they are overwhelmed with work. Judging (forgive the pun) from the state of most of the country’s courtrooms, I’d have to agree with them. Amongst many other things, Spain’s judicial system, which has been notoriously inefficient for much too long, has never been ‘computerized’, leading to a mass of paperwork building up in every corner of court offices, desks, passageways and, in some cases, even the toilets – and, of course, leading to one of the slowest such ‘systems’ in Europe.

Is there any comparison between these two items? You tell me.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2009

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(Image by Sorel, Vanity Fair, 2008)

George W. Bush is gone. There are those who might say he was gone for a long time, even for his entire presidency. Never has a US President had such a low rating as he leaves office, a notoriously low rating period for any presidency. But does he deserve it? Probably not, as he didn’t seem to have anything much to do with his period in office.

Surrounded by his henchpeople (Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, George Senior, et al), Dubya was surely just a public face expounding in his twisted vocabulary what they wanted him to say. It was their words, not his, that issued forth in his quasi-Texan accent, though he had a way of messing them around in his imitable way. ‘Like a puppet on a string,’ goes the song.

To be fair, though, my use of the politically correct ‘henchpeople’ above implies that Bush was the head of something. Forget that implication: his head must have been as empty as his words.

Enough has been said in the world’s media -and certainly that of Spain, which held him in pretty minimal regard- about his mandate. Criticism of his presidency and of the people around him has been constant from anyone holding opinions anywhere left of Radical Right. The list is as endless as countless are their victims.

Then again, he always made it clear that you were either with him or against him – but these would have been Cheney’s words. Someone else’s, anyway. In the end, though, he, or his wordsmiths, managed to divide his country so deeply, to wrought such profound injuries to the rest of the world as well, that enough voters turned against him anyway.

Is it any wonder then that Barack Obama was swept into office? Can anyone truly be surprised that the US’s first African-American President is being given a chance to make the fundamental changes that are so sorely needed for that magnificent country?

Would anyone be honestly puzzled if they saw a photo of Obama in the Oval Office scratching his head like Stan Laurel (of 1930s comedy fame) when he muttered to Oliver Hardy: “It’s a fine mess you got us into!”

A powerful message

January 6, 2009

PepeMedina_001_04

I first saw this cartoon by Pepe Medina on JimenaPulse. Titled Vida regalada, ‘A gifted life’, its simplicity carries a powerful seasonal message as does all of Medina’s work for Público, in print and online. It’s well worth having a look at for it makes you think. That is the job of cartoonists everywhere, to make us think. And a heck of a job it is: a distillation of feeling, requiring a sense of humour, a deft hand probably backed by years at art school, and a secret ingredient I have never been able to fathom but before which I stand, hat doffed, in awe and admiration.

Cartooning goes back to pre-history, or what else are those cave paintings Spain is full of? Indeed, the tradition of cartoons in this country is alive and well. Every newspaper and website of any consideration is crammed with excellent work. The work of Forges published in El País is a good example, although a good knowledge of colloquial Spanish may be needed. Of course, he’s been around since forever. So has Antonio Mingote, who is also a poet and a member of the Real Academia.

Why are there so many good cartoonists in Spain? I don’t doubt for a minute there are just as many and just as good anywhere else, but I happen to live here. The rhetorical answers to my question, only opinions, are that 40 years of dictatorship forces one to read between the lines and thus refines not only a sense of healthy skepticism but also one of irony. (As a young man under a dictatorship in another country I used to buy several different daily papers to get as balanced a view as possible, but I usually found that the cartoonists, often persecuted, had done that for me.)

The other answer is that there is also a healthy comics-publishing industry, perhaps the best example of which is El Jueves, a distant cousin of the old Private Eye. These publications are a wonderful training ground for anyone who breaks out into the perilous world of the freelance. Alas, however, too many of these are unlikely to make a living from their cartoons. A more regional example of this is Ricardo Tejeiro, who publishes in Europa Sur. Ricardo is also a writer and a psychologist, which last may well account for his acuteness on issues that are mostly local rather than national or international. There are so many of them, all of them good, that there is no room here to name each one. How I wish that were possible. But long may they all last. And long may they keep bringing us their powerful messages.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2009

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As I am writing Israel is in its fourth day of devastation on the Gaza Strip. Palestinian dead are conservatively calculated at 360 by the Spanish media, while Israel’s are at four. Palestinian injured are close to 2000, but I don’t have a figure for Israel. Women, children and innocent civilians are predominant in both casualty lists. Palestinian, or Hamas, armaments are home-made missiles with a range of between 10 and 15 km, while the Israeli army is equipped with the very latest in American and French death technology: the equivalent of using a sling shot against someone carrying an Uzi. International aid boats trying to reach the Strip have been rammed by Israeli patrol boats, while medical facilities there have been decimated by years of Israeli embargos and sanctions.

Comparisons may be odious but it is inevitable to mention the Holocaust yet again. The State of Israel was founded before six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis but it was largely populated, with great difficulty thanks to the British, by refugees from that horrifying period of only 70 years ago. Many of them have died since then, in battle or of old age, yet the Nazi death camps, or the Warsaw Ghetto, are surely part of Israel’s collective memory. Much of what one reads from Israel says things like ‘It will never happen again’. Really?

The full Biblical quotation much in vogue on both sides of the everlasting Palestinian-Israeli conflict reads as follows (Exodus Ch. 21, curiously part of the tenets of both the Hebrew and the Islamic cultures, which are not that different from each other):

And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake.

Even so, I prefer the Mahatma’s quotation that heads this article.

So why does Israel insist on creating its own holocaust? For starters, their good friend George W. Bush is headed for ignominy next month, to be replaced by someone who’s middle name is Hussein. Coincidence? I doubt it. The American Jewish lobby, powerful and Machiavellian, is unlikely to be in the best of odours with Obama after all, though we probably shouldn’t read too much into that, either. The American Christian lobby, equally powerful and Machiavellian, probably doesn’t like the idea much either (this is Bible land, remember) – nor would the American Cuban lobby, equally etc, be too pleased, for they have a vested interest in right-wing politics, too.

Gaza_Strip_and_West_Bank Secondly, the Gaza Strip has always been a problem for Israel. It is just a strip of land that sticks in their gullet but happens to be populated by Palestinians thrown out of Israel. Its false border with Israel was designed as a buffer zone between it and Egypt. Naturally, it is a hotbed of fanaticism, with Hamas, the de facto government, at the head throwing stones and short-range missiles. Wouldn’t it be neat and tidy if the Israeli border could be straightened out to reach the sea just about there, though? Wouldn’t it be neat and tidy to just get rid of Hamas altogether no matter the cost in innocent lives?

I have absolutely no pity for terrorism or terrorists of any stripe or denomination. I do have pity for the countless millions who suffer any form of it, be it called down upon them by the state or a fanatical faction. I have lived under the former but have mercifully managed to avoid the latter by a hairsbreadth. In a fairly long life I have come to believe that, indeed, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. With both my eyes thankfully still in my head, I can’t help looking askance at what is happening in the Gaza Strip right now.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008