Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Hands against the wall and drop your trousers

In the 70s, when much of South and Central America were in political turmoil, I read an impressive book about the violation of human rights there. The book was full of torture stories. I was most impressed by the way that ordinary people didn't buckle under but I also pondered where the torturers came from. One Sunday you have a nice civilised country but by Monday morning there are people connecting electric wires to mens' testicles and stubbing out their fag ends on the soles of peoples' feet. What's the selection process, what skills and qualities are on the job description?

At the time when the IRA and UFF and everyone else in Northern Ireland was going at it I heard some bloke, who'd served in the British Army, describing a common technique for obtaining information from prisoners. They put a plastic bucket over their victim's head and then beat the bucket with a mop handle. It made me realise just how easy torture can be and I still, sometimes, think of that as I shop amongst the Addis stuff in the supermarket.

About a month ago a judge, talking in some conference here in Spain, said that he thought ETA (The Basque terrorist organisation) members had been routinely tortured by Spanish Security Forces. Now I have no idea whether he's right but in all probability he is. If I were a Guardia Civil member, who had just seen some mates blown to pieces by a bomb,  I might well become a little over zealous too. The Association of the Victims of Terrorism thought the judge should be sacked. They thought that it was outrageous that he should suggest that the Security Forces were other than on the side of the angels.

A couple of days ago a branch of Local Government in Madrid decided to ban a flag from a big football match final due to take part in the capital on Sunday. The flag is a version of the official Catalan flag with some adaptations. It has a nationlist significance and is a symbol often used by people who want an independent Catlonia. I was apalled, incensed and troubled by the decision in equal measure. The idea of trying to stop an opinion being expressed, in a democracy, by waving a flag seems akin to totalitarianism to me. I know that some Spaniards were of the same opinion but I got the feeling that for many Spaniards the equation was flag waving equals Catalan Separatists, Catalan Separatists bad, Stop them. Four legs good, two legs bad!

During the last twelve months a law has been enacted in Spain that fines or imprisons people for doing things that the Government thinks endangers citizens. It's not as though Spain is short of laws to deal with wrongdoers. You can get into trouble if you go burning and looting. Attacking people is also considered to be a bit beyond the pale. In fact if you can think of some bad thing I 'm pretty sure there is a Spanish law against doing it. There wasn't, though, a law to stop people posting videos to YouTube of police officers beating people with sticks for no obvious reason. The fines for scaling the fence at a nuclear power plant and hanging up a banner were related to trespass and damage to property. Organising a demonstration without a licence wasn't that big a deal either in the punishment afterwards sense. But the new law toughened that up. I forget, and I can't be bothered to look because it makes me seethe, but that banner might now cost 300,000 or 600,000€. Suck on that you Greenpeace types! The result? Someone was arrested in a town close to us when they posted a picture on Facebook of a police car parked in a disabled parking slot. It was considered a slur on the local police. Now I may just have an alternative view about that incident but it's perhaps better that I don't write it down or they may be knocking on my door.

So, suggesting that police officers may have been involved in torture or lazy parking, waving a flag or taking a video could, under certain circumstances, lead to people being sacked, fined or jailed. These things don't go unchallenged of course, the courts overturned the flag waving ban yesterday, but the concensus view  makes me wonder if Spaniards have quite got the hang of this democracy thing.

What seems blatantly obvious to me, that having a different opinion should not, generally, lead to legal action seems to slip by a lot of Spaniards. The judge's opinion that torture happened is confused with siding with the evil that was or is ETA. Supporting the right of anyone to wave a Nationalist flag is confused with supporting that Nationalism and exposing police officers for abusing their role is only a step away from robbing a bank.

Maybe it's just a case of old habits dying hard.


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

As a Spaniard and immigrant to the UK and an avid follower of your blog, I couldn't help but to comment on this entry.

You make some strong statements regarding the quality of Spanish democracy. I could agree that there is plenty of room of improvement for Spanish society and its current system of governance (whatever you understand by that) and that some events, current and past, might re-enforce that view. But what I take strong issue with is your statement about the 'Spanish' as a whole. Also, I have to assume that you issue such a statement as a British subject (not a citizen by the way) and it is the latter that pushed me to comment on your post.

After one decade and a half of full immersion (English workplace in the English language, English partner and associated family, etc.) in your country, here are a few quick and subjective impressions I have about how democratic Britain really is:

Institutions like the 'Remembrancer' and the monarchy's privileges? They don't seem very democratic to me.

Libel laws in the UK, widely utilised by the powerful to gag criticism towards them even when not possible in their own countries.

A massively watched society.

Foreign torturers trained in the UK and murderous dictators (Pinochet) shielded from extradition by the British justice system?

I could go on and on but not much point to it as I would venture that these things happen in the most sophisticated societies; you only need to scratch the surface.

As for what seems to me a portrayal of all Spaniards as having questionable 'democratic' credentials, I can only conclude that you must have a fairly good statistical sample to base your generalisations upon. But even if that was the case, are they really that different from the millions of people that follow such 'democratic' media outlets as the Daily Mail, Daily Express, etc and have them as their only source of facts about the world (including Spain)? To me, some of the things that I have read on such papers are bordering fascism, yet all the individuals that I have met who read such papers, would consider themselves democrats (you know, Magna Carta and all that).

As for conflating South and Central American and Spanish recent history, what is that based on? Furthermore, the situation in many of those countries (especially during the cold war) was significantly influenced by the policies of the greatest Anglo-Saxon democracy!

Indeed Spain (as most others countries) could learn a lot from other societies but in my view and based on my experience over here, the UK should not be one of them, other than perhaps in the realm of animal welfare. On the other hand though, the Spanish establishment and 'poderes facticos' could draw many lessons from their British counterparts on the art of repressing a society whilst convincing its members that they are the freest in the world. That way there is no need for nasty dictatorships and all associated bad press.

And that's it, with that off my chest, I am looking forward to continuing reading your entries as they normally provide a more down to earth view of life in Spain from the perspective of a foreigner than some of your fellow immigrants expats do.

All the best.

A Spaniard in the South East.

Chris Thompson said...

Hello and thanks for the comments. I'm always surprised when someone I don't know has anything to say about my entries.

As you, obliquely, suggest I have absolutely no statistical basis for my views. They are no more than that - views. I am also well aware of the danger of generalisation - the old adage that generalisations are generally innacurrate is one I have used several times in the blog but it is impossible to write briefly without making generalisations. And the South America introduction is simply that. A way of introducing the blog. So no comparisons. Indeed if there is a comparison in the piece it's with the British Army and their use of torture.

The ley mordaza is relativley recent. Instances of its use are a regular item in the press here - usually little stories. The judge story is less than a month old and the Copa del Rey story is still live today. Esperanza Aguirre thinks that people who whistle at the National Anthem should be prosecuted. So those are things that I've noticed. Things which concern me and so the piece. Not my normal sort of trivia piece.

As to we Brits. I often have quite strong differences of opinion with my Daily Mail reading compatriots here in Spain. Back in the UK it seems, to me, that the whole basis of Brexit is based on a racist and parochial view of the world. We Brits are very happy to delude ourself about our democratic credentials - OK, for a long time we ruled an Empire but didn't we bring order, good government, fair dealing, justice? - well not if you ask the people whose forebears lived under British rule. I'm British, I have no problem with being British but I do take exception to lots of things done in my name, by my Government and by my compatriots.

When I listened to the radio in the UK I listened to the blather that we Brits had the best blood collection system in the world, or omething similar, just as I hear now that some operation in a Barcelona hospital is the most advanced of its kind in the world. Carlos Sainz eight in GP comes before the name of the winner. What Hamilton did comes before the name of the winner. Our nations like to think they are brilliant, ground breaking, world leaders yet, as you say, there are flaws and problems everywhere.

On the other hand the country I live in tried to stop some people waving flags, someone was arrested for posting a picture of a police car parked in a disabled slot and it's true that if the person who took that video of the CNP running around Atocha trying to find someone to hit with their riot sticks did it now they could be prosecuted.

So I have no problem whatsoever with agreeing with you about lots of your points but I also know that when I posted a few lines on Facebook saying I was concerned about the flag ban I had four Spaniards comment: three of them thought the ban was correct. I mentioned it at work and the two Spanish people I work with were for the ban too. The courts were with me though.

All the best.